Bernie Juno recalls career of helping homelessness in Waukesha

Scott Ash
Bernie Juno is retiring from her position as executive director of Hebron House of Hospitality Inc. in Waukesha.
Published on: 7/15/2014

Bernie Juno didn't need the motivation.

But she remembers, essentially, being challenged.

A committee member at a city of Waukesha meeting some three-plus decades ago questioned the intent of Juno and many Waukesha residents affiliated with downtown churches starting a homeless shelter operation in the city in the early 1980s.

The committee member believed Juno would flee the operation and the shelter would become the city's problem.

"'We're going to be left in the neighborhood (taking care of this)'" Juno recalled the woman say at the meeting. "I said, 'I will promise I will give you at least one full year to make sure it's well established and we have a good working relationship.'"

Well, Juno not only put in that one year, she has put in more than 30 years since then.

Juno has led the growth of the Hebron House of Hospitality Inc. nonprofit organization to where multiple shelters have opened for families and women and children, improved the aesthetics of the original Hebron House at 812 N. East Ave., has collaborated with other agencies to address the needs of homelessness and led an effort to maintain an overflow shelter for men during the winter months.

"She has a real heart for the people we serve," said Irene Perez, the director of development of Hebron House of Hospitality. "She is adamant about the quality of services we provide."

Through it all, her mission has maintained the same: helping the city and county's homeless population and being an advocate for them, male or female, young or old.

"We want to see an end to homelessness," Juno said.

'Best time of my life'

Juno left her stable career as a dental hygienist, working in a private practice, to start up the nonprofit after assisting those at the St. Joseph's medical clinic.

"That's how I saw the need, because I kept seeing people coming back all the time and they never seemed to get better from the medical standpoint," Juno said. She soon learned many coming to the clinic were homeless.

"We found out they were either living in their car or on the street," Juno said. "At that time people in Waukesha were literally given a bus ticket to go to Milwaukee. So about six churches participated — about 30 to 40 people — working on the idea of developing a shelter."

In the early days, with funds so low and without a permanent office, Juno often spent her entire day and nights at the Hebron House shelter, with her volunteers and those utilizing their services.

"There's just something about being there," said Juno, who added she started as a volunteer executive and had to raise $100,000 in her first year to keep the first shelter going. "We used to sit around a table and eat dinner with them, encourage them, share resources with them. We would all sit around as a big family."

Juno called those first few years, a time when her connections with struggling families in Waukesha were formed, "the best time of my life."

"I guess that's why I stuck around, because it feels good and it is good," Juno said.

Stepping aside

But after more than 30 years of running the Hebron House of Hospitality, Juno is transitioning into retirement.

As of last week, Juno has taken on a part-time role as the organization's strategic projects consultant, a position that she and the Hebron House of Hospitality Board felt would be the best fit as she enters the final phase of her career.

She said it's hard to give up her position because "it's like your little child" but "it's the perfect time" to go through with the transition.

Juno still has the will and fight to combat homelessness, as she'll still be involved. But the Waukesha resident admitted from her office inside the St. Matthias Episcopal Church in downtown that it was time for her to start slowing down due to some health issues.

Specifically, Juno, who is dependent on a pacemaker, has undergone three open-heart surgeries for valve replacements due to rheumatic heart disease as a child.

"After a certain time you don't bounce back as quickly as you used to," Juno said. "That's what slows me down. If I could just work my mind I probably would be really good."

Juno, however, is still passionate about homelessness because she knows the need is so prevalent.

She said that when adding up those at the Women's Center, Salvation Army and Hebron House there are just under 200 people being served each day. Take into account the 100 to 150 who are on waiting lists and the list grows. And then there are those who are not accounted for.

And while the winter is the worst for single men, Juno said the summer is the busiest time for families who are homeless, "putting the most pressure on our budgets and staff."

Knowing that about 50 percent of the people that the shelter serves is children, Juno and her team have wanted to do all they could to assist.

She oversaw the addition of a new playground and outdoor space at the Hebron House last year. However, the men's overflow shelter continues to be a concern of Juno's as she said the "Northview location is out of the question this winter."

Challenges along the way

She called her biggest challenge as director raising money as well as the 620 Summit Avenue project.

"That's my dream," said Juno, referring to an eight-unit complex for people with disabilities (the project has been in the works for seven years). "So I have a lot of work to do in my transition."

Juno added "always trying to prove the need" to the community is also a challenge.

"Bernie has always been a true advocate for the population we serve and she has always treated everyone within the agency as though we are family," said Erika Trawitzki, who has taken over as the director of operations at the Hebron House of Hospitality.

Lasting memories

Juno gets emotional talking about her career.

She has seen many of the people the shelter has helped in the past now become successful in the community and one young woman, she said, even came back to volunteer at the shelter.

"Most people who work in the shelter don't get that opportunity," Juno said. "I go through drive-throughs and people say 'Hi Bernie, how are you? Or I'm out to eat and people just say 'Thank you for their time in the shelter.'

"I might not even know them but they just say thank you for that opportunity. That's where I was lucky. Because when you work day to day on a long term issue like housing you don't usually see the end results."