If you’ve ever met a Wisconsin resident, state pride will surely surface—and with good reason. From the home of the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsinites are known for their staunch work ethic and their gracious midwestern hospitality. But the Badger State has a battered heart.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, as many as 4,538 residents experience homelessness on any given day. Milwaukee, in particular, is beset by homelessness, prostitution, and human trafficking.
Milwaukee-based Franciscan Peacemakers has been on the front lines of these crises since 1995. The organization’s mission, as its website states, is to minister “primarily to women engaging in prostitution but also to the homeless and families living in poverty.”
Cynthia Perkins is a jewel in the crown of this organization. Her work as a peer support specialist with Franciscan Peacemakers encompasses street outreach, distributing food and hygiene supplies, and managing the hospitality center.
She understands the needs of women in crisis because she used to be one. Originally from Mount Union, Pennsylvania, Perkins grew up in an abusive household. After losing several family members in short succession, Perkins dropped out of high school.
Eventually, she landed in Wisconsin, where she faced homelessness, sexual exploitation, and drug addiction. Her life was spiraling. Enter Franciscan Peacemakers.
“While I was on the streets, Franciscan Peacemakers would minister to me by giving me food and resources,” she says. “They kept me uplifted and encouraged me to leave the streets.” In 2018, Perkins entered Franciscan Peacemakers’ Clare Community Recovery Program, which paved the way to healing and wholeness. Now she uses her experiences to help women who struggle along the periphery. She credits a higher power.
“I want to share God’s love with other people, the same love that was shown to me when I was on the streets,” Perkins, a mother of three, says. “I want to give back. I want to show women that there is another way of life. If I can do it, they can too.”
It’s a daily uphill climb. According to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 25 percent of homeless people in the United States also suffer from mental illness. It’s a two-headed monster that Perkins battles daily in her work. Her response is heartfelt and inherently Franciscan: “The people we serve challenge me to stay loving and kind when they are being difficult.”
Staff at Franciscan Peacemakers try to heal the wounds in their community; many times, they feel wholly outmatched. “We don’t always have enough resources to meet the needs of all the women. It’s hard leaving work, knowing many of the women we serve do not have a safe place to go,” Perkins says. But this follower of St. Francis isn’t wired to back down: The charism of Francis gives her strength.
“Let us begin again,” a statement penned by the poor man of Assisi, was a rallying cry both to heal and to rebuild the kingdom of God. Eight hundred years later, Perkins is continuing the work of rebuilding the community and its most endangered citizens.
“St. Francis ministered to the poor and outcasts of society,” she says. “I feel we do the same thing by sharing God’s love with those who are experiencing difficulties in their lives: the poor, the homeless, those who are addicted, and those who some overlook.”