Homelessness: What should we do?

Tami Miller is one of my heroes. Singlehandedly, she has helped to start a movement and has helped to change the debate in Madison. For more about her and her efforts, visit Feeding the State Street Family. 

She commented on a previous post of mine. I’m putting it up here to make sure people see it. Her fundamental question is: “What should we do?”

What can we do- as ordinary, “regular” people to help our homeless neighbors- right now in practical and useful ways? Our weekly food run has been hit with bigger crowds than ever-we keep running out of food- I have been told that Savory Sunday has also been running out of food- our Midnight run takes less than 30 minutes to hand out supplies for 100 people living outdoors…I now have 42 remote camping sites that I visit— it feels like the economy and the circumstances here in Madison are causing a swelling in the numbers of those who are homeless… yet growth for services is slow paced, and often argued against and it just can’t keep up… no one wants a 24-7 day center in their neighborhood… and homeless people are dying out here (5 deaths in the past months). It scares me.I am frightened for my homeless family. I know that we are doing God’s work, but the problems seem so overwhelming Father. I pray each day for my homeless brothers and sisters- I pray for God to give us direction, to give me direction- I give it back to Him because this is HIS thing. I wish I could hear an audible response to that prayer…

My heart breaks to see the desperation and the fear. To see people hungry, cold or overheated, sick with little healthcare and no medicine, addicted with no available treatment beds or turned away from detox, mentally ill with no treatment, injured, spat on, raped or beaten because of who they are and how they have to live. I am just a farm kid Father, I feel like I have no answers…I want…so much to make things better, and to have those who control the money, and who have the power those who look down on people with less to see my homeless family through my eyes, or far better- through God’s eyes. What do we do? How do we Pray? How can we be better, do better than we are? Right here, right now??? I ask this earnestly, and with hope… How do we become a city and a people that puts our fellow human being’s basic needs first?

I’ll offer my response when I’ve had more time to think about it.


Grief and Anger are appropriate, but we can also do something

When I blogged about Dave’s death earlier today, I didn’t realize there was an article on Madison.com about the homeless man’s death yesterday. It captured some of the grief and anger of those who had helped him during his last days.

I doubt very much whether there will be a follow-up article but here are the questions that I would ask if I were writing one.  They are questions we all should demand answers to.

  1. What was the cause of death? Was it related either to his recent hospitalization or to the medications he was taking?
  2. What are the arrangements for his funeral and burial?
  3. Did the Janesville hospital know (or care) whether he was homeless when they released him after surgery? Did they provide transportation for him to Madison?
  4. Do other hospitals in the region send discharged patients to Madison’s shelters? (It wouldn’t surprise me; I know jails and prisons do).
  5. How many patients are released from Madison hospitals directly to the homeless shelters? (They must know; mail is regularly sent from the hospitals to shelter guests).
  6. How many more people will die before we come up with a solution to this long-term problem?

Feeding the State Street Family’s facebook feed tells the story of the heroic efforts to help Dave.



A man died on Thursday night in a homeless shelter in Madison.

So, I saw a request on Thursday on Feeding the State Street Family’s facebook page. A blind, homeless guy needed help, specifically transportation to get him to an appointment that might eventually lead to housing. He got that help, made it to the appointment but was told to come back the next day. He spent the night in the homeless shelter. In the morning, we heard that someone died overnight in one of the shelters. A call to the coroner revealed that it was him. He had recently been in the hospital for hernia surgery and was released with his medications.

Once again, the “system” has failed someone. No, it’s not the system–it’s us. Of course all sorts of institutions bear responsibility for this: a medical system that releases patients on to the street who can’t take care of themselves; governments that cut funding, social service providers and their employees who are overburdened, under-funded, and demoralized. But the bottom line is, we are responsible for this. A society that refuses to care for those in greatest need, a society that refuses to treat everyone with dignity and provide basic services for the sick, the homeless, the hungry, is a society that is rotten at its core.

As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve begun conversations in Madison about a medical shelter. How many more people will die before that dream becomes a reality?

A man died on Thursday night in a homeless shelter in Madison. He died alone. Who mourns for him? Who mourns for us?

This week in homelessness

Another flurry of news (to go with the week’s snowstorm) on homelessness in Madison.

First the not-so-good. The property Occupy Madison was hoping to purchase for housing was sold to another buyer. The group held a successful fundraiser this week and is hoping to locate another property that would suit its needs.

Token Creek, where Occupy has spent most of the winter was under water this week. Fortunately, churches in Sun Prairie again opened their doors. They have to leave the county park in February, and there are no solutions to this ongoing crisis. Here’s a pic of the scene from earlier this week:

76321_4144614817646_874521071_nIt’s not my photo; it was shared with me and if you would like to know more, I would be happy to speak with you privately.

A couple of pieces on Sarah Gillmore and the Day Center. From Joe Tarr of Isthmus, a profile and a look at what’s happening at the day center, as well as some questions about the future after the temporary facility closes in March. I’ll put a plug in for Sarah. I first met her almost three years ago and was knocked over by her passion, her no-nonsense approach, and her deep commitment to the homeless community. She rocks! Here’s an interview with her as well.

Also from Joe Tarr, a brief piece on an effort to provide a shelter for homeless vets. The man he interviews was homeless and a guest at the Drop-In Shelter in December after being released from the VA hospital. Where have we heard that story before?

Right now, the best place to find out about needs of the homeless community in Madison and how you can help, is the Feeding the State Street Family facebook page.

It’s going to be bitterly cold tonight again.

It’s cold in Madison tonight, do you know where you’ll be sleeping?

Do you care where the homeless are sleeping tonight? Some people in Madison do.

This week’s cold snap has demonstrated the power, innovation, and love of Madison’s newly-energized community of advocates for the homeless. They’ve exploited social media to highlight the problems, strategize solutions, and mobilize the community. The bitterly cold weather energized activists and volunteers in new ways, to provide shelter for those who remained homeless last night–at a church in Sun Prairie and at Prairie UU Church. And now there’s an effort to actually plan for weather emergencies! You can follow all of this at the Feeding the State Street Family facebook group, and find out how to help out. A brief visit to that group will also make clear who all are taking leadership and pointing the way forward.

There really are some amazing things occurring around homelessness in Madison. For example, there’s the work of Sarah Gillmore and the staff and volunteers at the Daytime Warming Shelter. They’ve got a website that details everything that’s going on from help with resumes to yoga. And each week there’s an update on news and other activities. Here’s this week’s.


And Occupy is working to purchase a building to provide transitional housing. You can read about that here.

If that’s not enough, it looks like we’re making progress as well in beginning to talk about shelter for people with medical needs.

A news item last week helps to explain the continued prevalence of homelessness in Madison. The vacancy rate for rentals in Dane County is a little over 2%, meaning that landlords can be very choosy and as we all know, when demand exceeds supplies, prices rise. According to statistics compiled by Madison Gas and Electric, the vacancy rate in several Madison zip codes is 1.5% or below. This vacancy rate may also explain the boom in apartment construction, though from what I can tell, most of that is directed at students or the high-end market.


A New Era? Changing attitudes and approaches to homelessness in Madison

There seems to be a revolution taking place in Madison and Dane County. Thanks to a number of factors and the efforts of a remarkable group of people, new initiatives are beginning and there is evidence of changing attitudes among our political leadership and wider community. I’m excited to be a witness and in a small way a participant in these changes.

One change, the Warming Center, which finally opened a couple of weeks ago on E. Washington Ave. The first day it opened, 57 people made use of it. It’s a temporary solution with a permanent facility funded by Dane County in the works. I received a plea from Scott McDonnell (chair of the County Board of Supervisors) in which he lists the shelter’s needs. You can download that letter here: McDonnell_letter.

Some of my excitement is due to the work of Tami Miller and her group “Feeding the State Street Family.” The Cap Times recently profiled Miller who began volunteering on her own a couple of years ago. Miller and her group reach out to homeless people where they are instead of expecting homeless people to seek them out. They provide meals, make midnight drop-offs of food and supplies. She is also experimenting with new programs, like a one-on-one mentoring program that may begin as early as January. She and I had a great conversation on Tuesday about how Grace can support her efforts. We also talked about some of the unmet needs in the city and the county.

One impact she and others have had is to shift the approach of the politicians. Mayor Soglin who has come off as very heavy-handed and tone deaf about homelessness over the last months, has been much more conciliatory in the last weeks. And County Executive Joe Parisi, who has made several mis-steps himself, is making similar efforts to reach out. Here’s an article about that.

The focus now from the City of Madison is on figuring out where the gaps in services are. It’s interesting that the 2011 annual report on homelessness in Dane County has finally appeared, just a few weeks before the end of 2012. That document is here: 2011 Annual Report revised

It makes for interesting reading. The statistics come primarily from social service agencies and shelters. It’s interesting to note that for all demographic groups, most people in the shelters were residents of Madison or Dane County before becoming homeless. What it doesn’t seem to track is the number of people who are homeless but don’t use the shelter system. Tami Miller puts that number at 400. On Monday, I talked to a couple of guys who are regulars at our First Monday meal. They sleep outside. One of them said he’ll go in the shelter when it’s really cold, another said he never uses the shelter. When I asked them about it, they brought up the usual issues and complaints I hear. The reality is that the shelter isn’t appropriate for everyone, and with shelter as with almost every other issue facing homeless people, it’s important to develop solutions based on the particular needs of individuals. Of course that takes more financial and human resources, but if the goal is to get someone into a stable living situation, those resources are necessary and produce results.

A video about the plight of homeless teens in Madison is here:

In short, these are interesting and exciting times and I look forward to future developments.