Hunger Task Force files civil rights complaint following Coggs Center closure

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force.

Last updated on November 2nd, 2022 at 06:42 pm

For decades, Milwaukee County residents looking to gain access to various government benefits would go to the Marcia P. Coggs Building at 1220 W. Vliet St. near downtown Milwaukee. The location has historically served as the site of Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services (DHS) and is where those seeking Milwaukee Enrollment Services (MiLES) would go.

On Monday, the Coggs Center closed the doors to its Vliet Street offices and individuals looking for MiLES services will now need to travel to another part of the city. DHS has constructed a new state office building located eight miles north of the Coggs Center at 6055 N. 64th St.

In response to the closure of the Coggs building Hunger Task Force filed a civil rights complaint today against DHS. The complaint alleges racism and discrimination, as well as “disparate treatment” to citizens of Milwaukee.

Residents who use programs including BadgerCare Plus, FoodShare and Wisconsin Shares will now need to go to the 64th Street location for services.

“This is a problem and we want the community to know why,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force. “No one knows. It’s as simple as that. No one knows that they’re moving. People needing help will come here, as they already have today, and they’ll be turned away. For some people, it’s just going to be inconvenient. For others, they’re going to have to figure out what’s going on with the bus system. And then there are those who can’t afford bus tickets. They will be denied and delayed services and that is illegal under federal law.”

Tussler said the new 64th Street location also provides accessibility challenges for the disabled and elderly and has “abysmal access” to the building for people using the Milwaukee County Transit System. There is a bus stop located outside the new building, but no real sidewalk that a person with disabilities could easily access, according to Tussler.

In a press release announcing the new walk-in location for MiLES services, DHS officials said the 64th Street building is more easily accessible since MiLES services will be housed on the first floor. Officials also cited bus line access and free parking as ways the move will make accessing MiLES services easier. The release states there is “greater accessibility for members who may be elderly, blind or disabled” but did not provide any further examples.

“We are thankful for our time at the Coggs Center and our partnership with Milwaukee County at that location. Some staff will remain at the Coggs Center to provide options to customers during this transition period while we continue to work with our members and partners and relocate to the new facility,” said Tonya C. Evans, Milwaukee Enrollment Services director, in a press release.

A representative with the state DHS was not immediately available for comment on the civil rights complaint Monday.

What’s next for the Coggs Center?

The Hunger Task Force will have staff on hand at the Coggs building all week. They’ll be able to assist residents looking to apply for benefits, help them resolve any case problems and even provide bus tickets to get them to the new location.

As for the fate of the historic Coggs Center, members of the Milwaukee County Board’s Committee on Finance unanimously approved $32 million in ARPA funds last month to develop a new Marcia P. Coggs Health and Human Services Building in the King Neighborhood. The remaining county and city services not provided through the Wisconsin DHS will be housed there.

A spokesperson for Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley’s office said Monday the decision to relocate services from the Marcia P. Coggs building was a decision made independently of the decision to build a new Coggs Health & Human Services Center.

“Milwaukee County Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) has a strong relationship with the Department of Health Services (DHS) and is working on an agreement to keep a DHS presence at the existing and new Coggs Center,” reads a statement from the county executive’s office. “As of December 1, 2022, DHS will have staff at the Coggs building to assist individuals seeking DHHS services.”

In a follow up statement issued Monday afternoon, Tussler said there is a lack of concern being given to the “pressing nature” of service loss for Milwaukee County residents.

“Just today, a man became extremely agitated when he was unable to pick up his mail, which he stated contained a check,” said Tussler. “More incidents of this nature will ensue during November, a month when people not only need food but look forward to the holidays. While the County Executive is powerless in this situation, standing back for a month is inexcusable when people need basic help with food.”

 

Ashley covers startups, technology and manufacturing for BizTimes. She was previously the managing editor of the News Graphic and Washington County Daily News. In past reporting roles, covering education at The Waukesha Freeman, she received several WNA awards. She is a UWM graduate. In her free time, Ashley enjoys watching independent films, tackling a new recipe in the kitchen and reading a good book.

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