Wisconsin DOT towing some vehicles from Milwaukee County park and ride encampments

Wisconsin Department of Transportation is working to identify abandoned cars, clean trash

Trailers can be seen here at the Holt Avenue Park and Ride in Milwaukee on June 12, 2024. Evan Casey/WPR

For the past few months, John Lopittino and his girlfriend have been living out of their RV, which is parked at a park and ride in the city of Milwaukee. 

He said they’re currently on a waitlist for an apartment in Waukesha. 

“We’re good, we’re way better than a lot of other people out here,” Lopittino said while standing outside of his RV Wednesday morning. “A lot of people are in their cars, they already towed a whole bunch of those the past couple days.”

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Last fall, people experiencing homelessness started living out of their cars and campers at park and rides in Milwaukee. That prompted a community meeting.

Eric Collins-Dyke, the assistant administrator of supportive housing and homeless services for Milwaukee County, said the encampments sprung up at the Holt Avenue Park and Ride and the College Avenue Park and Ride. But in the past few days, he said the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has been working to remove vehicles that have been identified as “abandoned.”

“Anyone that we’re connected with at the park and rides and currently working with … we’ve been given some grace to have more time,” Collins-Dyke said.

People living at the park and ride sites began receiving notices from DOT this spring that vehicles breaking park and ride rules or that “reasonably appear to be used for camping” would be towed starting May 16. 

Shelly Sarasin, co-founder and director of Street Angels, watches as a volunteer assists a man living outside Thursday, May 9, 2024, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Collins-Dyke said homeless outreach workers have found housing for around 55 people who were living at the park and rides. There are another 25 people that he said are “close to getting their apartments” and around 15 people they’re working to connect with in the next week.

“Our goal is to get everyone at these park and rides indoors as quickly as possible,” he said.

Collins-Dyke said the number of people living at the park and rides will often “ebb and flow.”

Wednesday morning, around 10 trailers and RV’s could be seen at the Holt Avenue Park and Ride, while several tents were also set up under trees next to the parking lot.

“There’s some people who stay long-term. And there’s some people who come for a little bit, leave and come back, so it all depends on the week,” Collins-Dyke said.

A spokesperson with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation sent a statement Wednesday which said the department “and its partners have coordinated a collaborative approach aimed to help individuals living at park and ride lots find more suitable and safer housing options.”

“Partnering agencies will continue these outreach efforts, connecting individuals with resources and working with them to find long-term housing,” the statement said. 

Cleanup at the sites, including “removal of abandoned property and vehicles,” has been underway in recent days, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation added in the statement.

Lopittino said he saw around 10 cars and trailers get towed at the Holt Avenue Park and Ride on Monday and Tuesday.

Items are set up in an outdoor encampment near one of the stops made by the Street Angels bus Thursday, May 9, 2024, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

In the next few weeks, Collins-Dyke said county outreach workers plan to make a more “aggressive push” to get people living at the park and rides into housing. But he also said they’re seeing other encampments pop up, as homelessness is rising across the county. 

“We’re trying to prioritize as much as we can while also making sure that we’re not neglecting other individuals who are experiencing homelessness in other parts of the city and county,” he said. 

Rose, who didn’t share her last name for the story, has been living in a small trailer at the Holt Avenue Park and Ride with her husband since November. Before that, she said they were living out of his truck.

She said they’re about to look at an apartment this week that they’re hoping to move into soon.

“I’m hopefully ready to be out of here, I’ve been here long enough, it’s just a matter of time,” Rose said.