Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on “20-somethings” in Milwaukee.
Ceasar Crayton dreads when the phone rings at the Casa Maria Hospitality House on North 21st Street in the city’s Midtown community. The desperate caller typically needs a place to stay, but the house is almost always at capacity, so he too often has to say no.
“I’ve been in a situation where I was homeless before,” said Crayton, a live-in volunteer at the shelter for women and children who need a place to stay. Some are fleeing a domestic abuser.
“I’ve had to sleep out of a car,” added Crayton 20, who has been at the house for three months. “I never want to turn someone away.”
Crayton, who is a community activist focused on homelessness and poverty, does whatever he can — including laundry, cooking and miscellaneous tasks such as answering those phone calls — to help staff and newcomers at Casa Maria.
“Every time a new guest comes in,” he said, “I build a connection with them on a level where I consider them family.”
Casa Maria operates three houses in Milwaukee for homeless individuals and families. The main house, where Crayton works, provides short-term shelter to single women with children. Casa Maria also runs two other houses that provide longer-term housing for individuals and families in need, including refugees and people seeking political asylum. The community was founded as an outgrowth of the Catholic Worker movement, whose goal is creating “houses of hospitality” for the poor.
Crayton is accustomed to living in a cramped space. His large family of a mother, stepfather, younger brother, niece and two older brothers had limited means and moved a lot in his youth, always in Milwaukee.
“There were too many people living in a house together,” said Crayton, who is known for his panache. He is regularly nattily attired in colorful jackets and scarves and an occasional brim hat.
Although Crayton needed some personal space, he did not have the resources to live on his own. One day, a friend was driving him home and spoke of Casa Maria. His friend was a live-in volunteer and worked with organizations that collaborate with Casa Maria. A light went off in Crayton’s head: He could have his own space and help others at the same time.
His activism began during his junior year at Casimir Pulaski High School, where he joined multiple groups that concentrated on a variety of interests, including leadership and poverty.
Those who work with Crayton attest to his positive influence at Casa Maria and in the community. He connects easily with others, and cherishes the friendships he has made there.
“He’s really down to earth, and he’s super caring and he’s very selfless and I love him,” said a Milwaukee woman living at the house, who asked not to be identified because of her circumstances.
Shana Harvey, a social justice activist and coordinator of the New Sanctuary Movement, which works to prevent immigrant families from being separated as a result of deportation, lauded Crayton’s care for the community.
“Ceasar is one of those rare human beings whose heart guides him, whose heart drives him, and whose intelligence tempers him, whose compassion makes him able to experience the world on a very, very special level,” Harvey said.
Crayton’s relationship with those needing shelter does not end when they leave Casa Maria. He stays in contact with them and offers support, even if they just want someone to talk to.
Some day Crayton wants to open a dual restaurant and art studio where he can teach people how to cook and make art. He said he also hopes to expand his commitment to public service.
“I’m taking time for myself to become a strong leader,” he said. Especially when it comes to those with limited means, he said, “I want to make a difference in the world.”