Shelter for homeless teens soon to open

(First published in the November 27, 2019 issue of City Pages)

A new temporary house for homeless children could open as early as March in Wausau


Dr. Mary Jo Freeman, founder of Keep Area Teens Safe, inside what will become Hillcrest House on Wausau’s West side to help house homeless teens.

Dr. Mary Jo Freeman saw a story in City Pages she just couldn’t believe: There were more than 300 children in the Wausau area who were homeless.

She started making calls, learning more, and decided it was time to act. Retired after a bicycle crash hurt her wrist and cut short her medical career, Freeman decided her next move would be helping those homeless kids.

In March that dream will become a reality. The organization she formed, Keep Area Teens Safe, or KATS, plans to open the first house in the Wausau area for homeless teens. The group has raised $753,000 so far and bought a house on Wausau’s west side near John Muir that once served as an adult group home. KATS plans to call the facility Hillcrest House. Work has been underway fixing up the house since KATS bought it in June.

Hillcrest House will hold eight teens when complete. It has space for eight boys and eight girls, but will only house eight at a time (the limit allowed for a home of its kind, Freeman explains). That way, if they happen to get eight homeless children of either gender they can house them.

The problem of homeless children is becoming more stark, Freeman says. School districts in the area used to report 0-1 homeless children in their districts; now that number is often measured in three digits, Freeman says. Freeman says she believes the rise in drug use has been the biggest contributor.

Hillcrest House will be geared for ages 12-17, though with some wiggle room. An 18-year-old still in high school won’t be turned away if there’s room, Freeman says. The maximum stay is 30 days, Freeman says, and leaving doesn’t mean a teen couldn’t come back later. Many of the teens will likely refer themselves, but they also see the possibility of school districts and other authorities referring kids to the house.

Freeman hopes Hillcrest House also can help teach young people life skills, such as cooking and laundry, while they’re on site. Another bigger goal is that a stabilizing situation will allow teens the ability to further their education at UW-Stevens Point-Wausau or Northcentral Technical College and build a good life, Freeman says.

And she thinks Hillcrest House could benefit other organization by reducing crime, reducing the need for out of home placements and reducing services by putting kids on the right track and providing them a stable environment in a time of need.

KATS is still undergoing licensing and raising money for the project. The goal is $1.5 million, and the group has raised $753,000 so far. They hope to be open by March.

And there might be more in the works. Freeman thinks it’s likely the demand will be high enough that another house in the southern metro will need to be started eventually.