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!

The shelter system and the prison system

A really fine article by Pat Schneider on the direct line from the prison system to the homeless shelter.

Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison-area Urban Ministry, a nonprofit agency that assists criminal offenders returning to the community, estimates that 75 to 80 percent of people her agency assists in its offender “re-entry” programs are homeless. “The shelter system is the only option“ for many of them, she said.

I’ve blogged about this before here. I can confirm several points in the article. I know that guys come straight from the parole office to the shelter. I know that sex offenders that are released to their own communities come to Madison because there’s no place for them back home.
I remember several years ago a young man, a teenager, brought by corrections officials to the shelter from whatever prison he’d been in elsewhere in the state. His parents came down too. They wanted to know about the shelter, how he would fare, what would happen to him. For whatever reason, he wasn’t released to them. What I remember most about him was the look of fear on his face. Whatever he’d faced in prison was nothing like the uncertainty he was facing now. I have no idea what happened to him.
His reaction is quite common among those I’ve talked to who have just been released from prison. They’re facing incredible odds in their efforts to put their lives back together. In addition to all the social services they need, they also need a support system to help them, to encourage them, and to offer a helping hand when they make mistakes. Instead, they come to the shelter where they’re anonymous, where they’re surrounded by people who may or may not want to help them, and where access to the services they need is a maze in a city they probably don’t know.
The re-entry program run by MUM mentioned in the article does amazing things.