The System is Still Broken

I was given a stark reminder yesterday that Madison’s safety net for homeless people has gaping holes. It’s not just that the Men’s Shelter returned to “Summer Hours” with the arrival of Daylight Savings Time (I wonder if they ever considered changing that policy when the period of DST was extended into early March) and that the 60-day limit runs out for most men.

As I was leaving the church yesterday around 5:30, I encountered a couple of guys huddling for warmth in our entry way. Another staff person had seen them in the courtyard and invited them inside for a few minutes. One of the two men was carrying an oxygen tank. He had spent the day at Hospitality House and been brought back to the shelter by Porchlight’s van at 4:30. However, since the shelter didn’t open until 7:30, he would have to wait in 20 degree weather for three hours. He told me that doctors had instructed him to stay out of the cold weather and minimize physical exertion (like walking three blocks to the Public Library where he could be safe from the elements). So here he was.

I don’t know for certain he had been in the hospital last week. If so, I wonder if anyone considered how a homeless person could comply with instructions to minimize physical exertion and avoid being in cold weather. And I wonder about policies and procedures that leave a frail and nearly incapacitated man on his own on the streets for several hours or more. And I continue to despair about a nation and community that treats its weakest and most vulnerable members so callously.


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?