I’ve not written about homelessness issues recently because the situation for homeless people seems to be about as bleak as the weather we’ve been having. The day shelter closed last month; the overnight shelters went to summertime (!) hours and summertime policies and local government remains intransigent with regard to those who choose not to seek shelter in the shelters. The rays of hope are about as common as rays of sunshine.
But there are rays of hope. We’ll be meeting tomorrow to gather more info about the needs related to providing medical respite. In the coming weeks, I’ve also got meetings scheduled with people from the VA. And all of those people who continue to do good work and care for the homeless continue to do what they do at great personal sacrifice, with courage and love.
Which brings me to a remarkable story that’s transpiring this week at Grace. On Tuesday, I learned that a guy had been hanging out in the bus shelter on the corner of W. Wash and Fairchild during the day. A couple of people (our staff and volunteers) had reached out to him. His legs have been amputated and although he has prostheses, he also uses a wheelchair. Apparently, it had been stolen and one of his prostheses was causing some pain or perhaps an infection. Because the day shelter had closed and he was virtually immobile, the bus shelter was pretty much where he could be. Folks brought him sandwiches and drink and someone finally called 911.
A police cruiser came. Again, I’m just reporting what I’ve been told second-hand. The patrolman apparently took him to a hospital to get checked out, knowing that he would be back in the shelter in the evening. But the homeless man told the police officer that his wheelchair had been stolen. After dropping him off, the cop drove to the St. Vincent’s thrift store, bought a wheelchair with his own money, and brought it back to Grace, where we stowed it for the day and made sure it was there when the man came back.
But that’s not the end of the story. This morning, the cop came back by to check on the homeless man; to make sure he had received the wheelchair.
Now, there are all sorts of things about this story that are gut-wrenching and offensive. I will own up to Grace’s participation in the outrage. Our only defense is, how much more do Madison and Dane County expect us to do? But there are also broken shards of light in this story, in the response of our (and Porchlight) staff and volunteers. But especially there is the witness and actions of a police officer, who went out of his way and at his own expense, to buy a wheelchair and make sure that the man who needed it got it.
I will be sending a letter to the mayor and to the chief of police about this incident, praising the officer (whose name I know) and asking them whether they have the heart, the political will, and the courtesy to reach out in similar ways and to change the structures that make tragedy like a homeless man without a wheelchair and a minimally accessible shelter a daily occurrence in Madison.
Oh, and by the way? How about somewhere homeless people could find shelter from the rain?