Homelessness in Madison–The Future of Occupy Madison

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about homelessness. Two statistics, one is somewhat anecdotal, the other backed up by a survey. First, Porchlight reports that they saw higher numbers in the men’s shelter this winter than ever before. There were more than 150 guests many nights, which meant men sleeping on the floors of the overflow shelters, with nothing but a blanket. This, in spite of the fact that we had one of the mildest winters on record.

In addition, the current vacancy rate for rentals in Dane County is around 2%, down from 6% in 2006. Why are there homeless people? For one reason, there’s nowhere for them to go. The recession has seen a drop in home ownership, foreclosures, and the like. People who once owned homes or in a better economy might be purchasing one, are renting, putting pressure on the rental market, which means landlords can raise rents.

But there’s been an interesting development. In spite of the huge numbers of people in shelters, and the large numbers being turned away, Occupy Madison, which has been present on a vacant property on East Washington Avenue for the last six months, has become a center for homeless activism and empowerment. They approached the city about finding a new site for their tent city; testified before City Council, and have raised the issue of homelessness in a new way in this city. We’ll see what happens.

The mainstream media’s coverage can be followed here. Pat Schneider’s blog post is here.

Brenda Konkel has been following the story closely, and has offered insight into the mayor’s and alders’ perspectives. She reports on the testimony of Occupy Madison participants before the Common Council as well as other material.

The reality is that the issue is much larger than any one thing. People become homeless for all kinds of reasons–unemployment, substance abuse, family situations, crime, medical conditions–and helping people to regain stability requires intensive support from many sources and directions. The men’s Drop-In Shelter is just that, a temporary place to stay for men who are on the streets. It’s not transitional housing; it can’t provide the intensive services necessary to help men find solutions to their situations.

Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked to guys who came to the shelter directly from prison, from hospitals, or because their family situation had deteriorated to such a degree that the street was a better place for them. Some of them were working, at least part time, some of them were in school; all of them wanted a little help to get them out of their immediate situation into something better. I have also heard time and again, from various sources, that one of the problems of the drop-in shelter is that it doesn’t provide the kind of community necessary to help people get out of their situations.

I’ve not visited the current site of Occupy Madison (I did when they were located closer to the square, earlier last Fall). But from the testimony to Common Council, it sounds like what has developed there is something of a community, a network of support that can sustain people in their current situation. The city, and social service providers, should find ways to support this community and help it thrive.

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