I’ve written about this before but an article in this week’s Isthmus addresses both the efforts on behalf of a day shelter and the forces arrayed against it. Here is the letter I’ve written to Mayor Soglin, County Executive Parisi, Madison alders, and the Dane County board.
A few weeks ago as I was leaving Grace in the middle of the afternoon, I noticed a man sitting on the stone wall in our courtyard garden. I greeted him and asked him if he needed anything. He told me that he had been released from the VA hospital earlier in the day and sent here. He asked me about the shelter–when it opened, what the policies and procedures were. I told him that the shelter wouldn’t open until that evening but that it would be best if he waited on the grounds of the Capitol or somewhere else.
I realize that this brief vignette raises all sorts of questions about our society–our treatment of veterans, our healthcare system are both implicated in this man’s plight. What I would like to focus on, however, is that this man had nowhere to go. Staff at the VA could only tell him about the shelter, a place to stay that night, but there was nowhere for him to sit comfortably, his possessions secure, while he waited for the shelter to open.
His is not an isolated incident. Madison’s hospitals discharge patients directly to the men’s shelter; the jails and prisons do as well. And there are those who find themselves homeless for the first time. They have no idea where to go or what to do. If they’re lucky, someone tells them about the shelter. If they’re really lucky, when they check in, they find someone who will show them the ropes, help them negotiate through the night, and tell them how to keep themselves and their possessions safe. I can’t tell you how many times I encounter someone who’s been in the shelter several days or even weeks, and has never seen a representative from a social service agency or been directed to places and people that might be helpful.
The effort to establish a day resource center for homeless people is one of the few hopeful signs I see in Madison’s approach to homelessness. I’ve lived here for three years. When I arrived, I was shocked to discover that homeless services here seemed to lag behind what I had observed in Boston twenty-five years earlier. Even Greenville, SC, where I had lived and worked most recently, and hardly a center of progressivism, has facilities where homeless people can come during the day to receive a nutritious meal, get a shower, do laundry, receive mail, and stow their possessions. More importantly, there is an array of services offered, including GED classes and the like.
The reality for most homeless people is that most of their energy is spent trying to survive on the street, making sure they know where they will spend the night, where they will get a meal, where they might find a warm (or cool) spot to spend the day. There is little physical or emotional energy left to negotiate the system in order to access resources necessary to find permanent housing, a job, or to get training or education.
A day resource center, or day shelter is just such a place. It an bring together all sorts of resources not only to provide protection from inclement weather, but to provide the infrastructure and services that can help someone move off the street and into a more stable living situation. The fact that Madison lacks an adequate facility of this sort is an outrage.
I urge the Mayor, County Executive, members of the Madison Common Council and Dane County Board to support this effort financially. Such a center is not a bandaid, it offers concrete solutions to the problem of homelessness. It offers hope to the hopeless.