Mending the Safety Net with Social Media

There’s a quiet revolution taking place in Madison right now. As I’ve participated in and observed the conversations and debates around homelessness over the last years, I’ve begun to see a transformation in the way our community addresses this complex issue.

When I arrived in 2009, I noticed two things. First, there were enormous gaps in services for homeless people. One of the most serious related to weather emergencies. During a blizzard my first winter, I went down to the church to see how the shelter was coping. As is policy, the shelter remained open during the day because of heavy snow, winds, and cold weather. Unfortunately, there had been no advance preparation—little food was on hand and they were under-staffed. I tried to figure out how to avert such situations in the future and talked with shelter management about developing a plan that would deal with weather emergencies. I didn’t know who to turn to or how to broaden the conversation to engage others in developing solutions.

The other thing I noticed was the nature of the conversation. Four years ago, homeless advocates offered harsh criticism of agencies and government. Expending their time and energy in protest, they rarely sought concrete solutions. This adversarial stance often resulted in broken communication and relationships and rarely produced positive change.

What’s happening now is quite different. While agencies and government continue to receive criticism for inaction, gaps in services, and inadequate policies, homeless advocates and the homeless community have become much more proactive in responding to needs.

One of the most significant ways this takes place is via social media, especially Facebook. Groups like Friends of the State Street Family use Facebook to connect volunteers and provide services, food, and supplies.

The transformation in Madison has become obvious in just the last couple of weeks. As I mentioned in a blogpost earlier, we received an email on December 30 asking for help to provide daytime shelter for homeless people on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day when almost all of the agencies and facilities serving homeless people would be closed. Two churches quickly responded to open their doors.

This past week, a homeless advocate noticed that most of those same facilities and agencies would be closed on January 20 in observance of MLK Day. She initiated a conversation on facebook with several of us to figure out a solution (the conversation was initiated by Brenda Konkel and included Karen Andro, Mark Wilson, Tami Miller, Linda Ketcham, Heidi Mayree Wegleitner, and me). Again, within a day a solution emerged. I offered Grace Church as space and Karen Andro from First Methodist organized volunteers, a meal, and other necessities.

What I want to stress is that none of this might have happened without social media. The downtown churches have connected and coordinated services more quickly and effectively in the last week than they have in the previous thirty years (just trying to get pastors together to meet face-to-face can take months!). The same is true of homeless agencies and advocates. Social media brings us together, facilitates problem-solving and the dissemination of information. Ideas can become reality; advocates, volunteers, and members of the homeless community can work together easily and connect needs with solutions.

Significant challenges remain. There are still enormous gaps in services and much work needs to be done on the underlying causes but for now we have created a community of compassion and cooperation that has changed the landscape in Madison. Thanks to everyone who’s been a part of this!

A man died on the steps of Grace Church Sunday night

Sunday night, a homeless man died on the steps just outside the entrance to the Men’s Drop-In Shelter. I don’t know much more than that. Apparently he had left Grace to go to one of the overflow shelters to spend the night. I don’t know what the cause of death was. I don’t know if his death was at all related to the brutally cold weather. I don’t know if others have died already in this brutal cold.

I blogged last week about last-minute scrambling to make sure there were facilities open during the day on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. On Sunday, Porchlight adjusted their hours so that men could stay indoors until the Central Library opened at 1 pm. And yesterday, provisions were made by the County and by Porchlight to provide transportation between the shelter at Grace (where intake occurs, meals are provided, and there are shower and laundry facilities) and the two overflow shelters at St. John’s Lutheran and First United Methodist Church.

Yesterday was the first Monday of the month, Grace’s night to provide the meal for shelter guests and other community people. Because of the cold and worries about transportation for our volunteers, we made alternative arrangements to serve the meal down in the shelter. The menu was already less elaborate than we usually like to provide. The guys had pulled pork sandwiches with cole slaw and chips. Our sexton Russ was the chef.

Volunteers and advocates had spent a couple of days visiting remote campsites to urge people to seek shelter and providing additional supplies for those who declined to move. Most of us worry that people will die either at campsites like that, or in the cars where some live. We assume that if they come to the shelters, they will survive the cold weather. But lSunday, someone who came to the Drop-In Shelter died on the doorstep outside.

Our immediate tendency is to want to place blame when deaths like this occur. Why does Porchlight operate its shelters in this way? Why didn’t the city or county prepare better for the cold weather that had been predicted for a week? If transportation had been provided, would this man have survived?

These are hard questions and need to be asked. But there’s an even more uncomfortable question that needs to be asked, not of social service agencies or city and county government. It’s the question we need to ask ourselves as a community. Why do we lack adequate facilities for the neediest people among us? Why do we lack a men’s shelter that provides adequate space for all who need it? Why do we lack a permanent day center that offers the full array of services needed by homeless people?

And there’s a question I need to ask myself. I received an email from a homeless advocate Sunday afternoon asking if I knew of special provisions for transportation between Grace and the overflow shelters. My response was simply, “I’m not in the loop on this.” If I had pursued it; if I had contacted Porchlight staff, government officials, other advocates, could I have helped prevent that death? Even if the death was completely unrelated to the cold weather, someone died at Grace–alone, uncomforted, on a cold night. That should never happen.

In addition, Brenda Konkel drew my attention to this report from the National Coalition for the Homeless that surveyed what communities do in the winter and offers recommendations for best practices. There’s a lot in the document we can learn from, especially the recommendation to have a plan in place well before the onset of winter.

On December 30, many of us received a request from the county asking whether we might be able to open our churches because of the lack of facilities open on New Year’s Eve and Day. On Sunday afternoon, advocates scrambled to provide for transportation between the shelters and Monday afternoon, the County finally made that happen for Monday night and Tuesday. New Year’s comes every year and every winter sees severe weather. How hard would it be to prepare a severe weather plan in advance and publicize it widely so people know what will happen?

Some statistics on homelessness in Dane County

The City of Madison has released its annual report on “The Homeless Served in Dane County.” The full report is here: 2012 Annual Report Final print . The Executive Summary is here: 2012 Annual Report Executive Summary Final

Providers report that they offered shelter to nearly 3400 individuals in 2012, a 10% increase over 2011. Of those individuals, around 42% were families with children; the next largest group was single men, around 40%.

I’ll quote from the summary:

Two-thirds of all individuals who stayed in shelters reported they had lived in Dane County for longer than a year. Only a few percent reported living here for less than a month. These numbers reflect a dramatic change from data collected in the 1990’s when nearly two-thirds of homeless persons reported living in Dane County for less than a month.


The reported data make clear the imbalance between the need for shelter and local capacity to accommodate that need. There are currently nine shelter programs, each serving distinct populations – families, single men, persons fleeing domestic violence, etc. The total capacity among reporting providers is about 310 beds, plus 65 seasonal and overflow beds. Few, if any new beds have been added to the system in the past year. There is also some ability to use motel vouchers for short term stays when necessary, though that is a more costly proposition.
Limited shelter capacity has led to rationing.

There: an admission of fact: “Limited shelter capacity has led to rationing.” Whether or not shelter providers, social service agencies, and local politicians want to admit it, rationing of space is long-standing policy.

One important thing to note about these numbers. They only reflect what is reported to the shelters at intake, and by the shelters to the city. In other words, this report doesn’t account for people who don’t try to access the shelter system. Thus the report doesn’t reflect the true scope of the need nor the true total numbers of homeless people. The only report that attempts to do this is the semi-annual Point-In-Time survey (conducted on January 30 and July 30).

In other news related to the homeless, Brenda Konkel points out that 5 homeless people have died in Madison in recent months.

Update on homelessness in Madison

First, an update on the day shelter on E. Washington (from a letter written by the director, Sarah Gillmore, to neighbors (h/t Brenda Konkel):

Greetings Neighbors,

As Week 7 begins, I want to share information and request that if anyone has comments, observations, questions, and/or compliments, to please share them back.

We have been averaging around 125 people/day.

Over this period of time, with this volume of people, we have contacted MPD for assistance 5 times:

First call (mid-December) was to report that a new-to-us guest hit another guest. Our justice team got the “hitter” out of our building within seconds, and contacted MPD to make report.

The other four calls to MPD were for assistance in helping four separate guests obtain medical help.

Our volunteer team continues to do patrols of the neighborhood; we have added litter pick-up to this task, as well.

We have needs for volunteers to conduct workshops in: child programs, adult art/crafts, adult computer literacy, and tax preparation.

Thanks for working together with us. There are about 12 more weeks left with us as your neighbors

I won’t compare those statistics with the average number of calls to 911 from the Drop-In Shelter…

At our most recent First Monday meal, I was struck by how guests actively responded to problems. Guests are beginning to take responsibility for making sure others behave appropriately.

News has finally broken about the efforts of Occupy Madison to purchase a building on Madison’s north side that may ultimately provide single room occupancy for homeless people. The article from is here. Isthmus coverage here.

I’m sure this will be a contentious issue as well but for all the NIMBY’s out there, a recent study suggests that homeless facilities may increase neighboring property values