By Sam Woods
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
More than a month after Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services moved its North Side location for providing support for services such as FoodShare and BadgerCare Plus, some residents are still returning to the old location for support.
On Nov. 1, the Department of Health Services, or DHS, relocated to a new location at 6055 N. 64th St. Up until then, residents looking for help navigating the FoodShare and BadgerCare Plus systems could find it at the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center, or Coggs Center, at 1220 W. Vliet St.
In addition to service at the new location on North 64th Street, residents can also receive help with DHS services at UMOS, located at 2701 S. Chase Ave.
DHS officials said they have provided outreach to residents affected by the move by posting signs at the Coggs Center in English, Spanish and Hmong; emailing almost 130,000 people receiving services about the move in multiple languages; and notifying community partners about the move in the hope that they would pass along the information.
Nevertheless, some residents are still not aware of the move and are learning about it after visiting the Coggs Center and discovering they are in the wrong spot.
In the first two weeks after the move, the Hunger Task Force said it helped 1,386 people who had come to the old location and were unaware of the move. During this time, the Hunger Task Force established a presence outside of the old location to help provide in-person support to those unaware of the move so that they did not have to travel to the new location.
Danni Bell was one of those who visited the Coggs Center expecting to file for emergency renewal of her FoodShare benefits after they were cut off. She said she wanted in-person support because she is currently receiving cancer treatment and was unsure how that would affect her application.
“I wanted to get in-person services because then they have to help you,” Bell said, comparing her experience with in-person service versus over the phone or online. “You get better service that way.”
Other residents like Cynthia Cook said that although she was inconvenienced by making a trip to the Coggs Center that she didn’t need to, she’s taking it in stride.
“I wish I would’ve known; the new location is much closer to where I live,” Cook said.
The reasons behind the move
Proximity to North Side residents like Cook who use its services is part of the reasoning DHS gave for the move to the new location.
DHS officials said they also made the move because the new site has free parking, a stop on a Milwaukee County Transit System bus line and greater accessibility for visitors who are blind or have other disabilities.
DHS officials also said the new building has more natural light and includes a meditation room and lactation station for working parents to nurse their newborns. They believe this will help with employee retention and ultimately reduce wait times and increase the quality of service people receive.
The Hunger Task Force criticized the old location’s accessibility as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act . It filed a civil rights complaint against the DHS in August 2021 that alleged that DHS’ services in Milwaukee County were not of the same quality of in-person services elsewhere in the state. That complaint is still active.
However, at the outset of the move to North 64th Street, Hunger Task Force Executive Director Sherrie Tussler raised concerns about the new location having only one bus line. The Coggs Center is on the 12 and 33 bus lines.
Tussler said it is important for those frustrated with the process of FoodShare or BadgerCare Plus to know that they are entitled to receive help, and that “entitlement” should not carry a negative connotation.
“FoodShare is a federal entitlement, which is not a dirty word,” Tussler said. “You have the right to apply, you have the right to in-person assistance, you have the right to complain and a fair hearing if you feel you have not been treated justly.”
DHS Secretary Karen Timberlake said her department will continue to work with community partners, including but not limited to the Hunger Task Force, to ensure that those looking for in-person help with DHS services are informed of the move.
“We serve several hundred thousand people, so it is going to take some time for that message to reach everyone. That said, we are leaning on our robust network of partners … we really do need them to help get the word out,” Timberlake said at an event last month about the new location.