Several weeks ago we wrote in this column about the plight of homeless people in Milwaukee, based on an extensive article in the Milwaukee Journal. Specifically, the article and accompanying photos targeted what is known as “Tent City,” a parcel of state-owned land under Interstate 94 in downtown Milwaukee.
Several dozen people live in that temporary “home,” all of whom are temporarily or permanently homeless. The city counted 44 tents that were used for housing.
As we read the story what caught our eye was the mention of a fellow by the name of Bob Jeka who was living there.
Jeka told a Journal Sentinel reporter that although he was a native of Milwaukee, when he was 4-years-old, the family moved to Lebanon where they had purchased a farm. He told the reporter he was a graduate of Watertown High School and with his farming background and knowledge of mechanics, he went to work at Ernie Von Schledorn in Menomonee Falls, Braeger Chevrolet in Milwaukee and also worked at Allis Chalmers.
Bob said things turned bad for him in 1986 when he suffered a work injury and went on disability income. He said his luck didn’t get any better after that. He said he made some bad investments and then had to face the loss of his wife to cancer. That followed with a stroke, diabetes and heart disease, which required multiple surgeries. Most recently he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
He told the reporter he expected to die in tent city and that he had refused medical help.
Well, that prophecy unfortunately came true, according to a Journal Sentinel article this past week.
Jesse Garza, one of the Journal Sentinel’s top reporters, told of his death through an interview with his daughter, Tammi Jeka.
His death at the age of 72 from esophageal cancer ended with him living in tent city after years of estrangement from his family and what the article described as a “love-hate” relationship with Tammi.
He had been helped by county workers several times in the past year as they tried to keep him from returning to the street, but he pushed all of that aside and instead preferred Tent City.
In her interview, Tammi painted a different picture of her dad’s life. He had contended his family abandoned him, but Tammi said home life was difficult and “we didn’t abandon him…we escaped from him.”
Bob spent some of the past winter with a friend in Alabama, but when the friend left for Florida, Bob gravitated back to Milwaukee and Tent City.
In the final months of his life, Bob moved back and forth between county provided housing and Tent City where he felt most comfortable. In the end he lived in a Salvation Army center, but that lasted only a single day until he passed away.
Tammi, who lives in Minneapolis and works in a mental health facility, said she believes her father suffered from some form of mental illness, although he was never diagnosed as such.
Tammi was with her dad when he died and as he was lapsing in and out of consciousness, he told her, “I’m really proud of you and I’m sorry for the (expletive) up life I gave to you.”
She told Jesse Garza, “I waited so long to hear those words.”
For Tammi it was an emotional roller coaster of a ride, and one that she continues to keep in her mind and no doubt will for a long, long time.
The story of Bob Jeka is a sad one indeed, and it kind of personalized for many of us the plight of these people. Some would love to leave the squalor that is part of Tent City, but for so many others, they know of no other way of life.
And, when you think about things, here is a big Tent City in less than an hour’s drive from Watertown and there was at least one former Watertown resident living there.
Tent City has come under more scrutiny in recent months as the city and county of Milwaukee determined that way of living would have to end. They have been aggressively working to find permanent housing for all of these people and there have been successes.
Winter is coming and living in Wisconsin in a tent under an interstate highway can be more than just challenging — it can be deadly.
There’s also no question but that city and county officials want that area cleaned up well in advance of the Democratic National Committee convention in Milwaukee next summer.
Still, it gives us pause out here in Watertown that homelessness happens everywhere and to all kinds of people. Watertown has similar challenges but on a much smaller scale.
We hope Bob Jeka has found peace at the end and that Tammi can now move ahead with life.