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!

What can we do?

What can we do? What should we do?

Tami Miller asked me this question a couple of days ago. She was referring specifically to our response to homelessness. I promised her a response but it’s been a busy couple of days for me filled with meetings and lengthy conversations with parishioners about all manner of things.

During these past few days, my attention has also been diverted by the growing debate over the same question being asked about a very different situation—the appropriate US response to the ongoing violence in Syria and especially to the claims of the use of chemical weapons against civilians. As I’ve read that debate, I was struck by the same anguish, uncertainty, and helplessness that many of us feel in Madison. “We’ve got to do something!” is a common refrain in the debate over Syria, although the prospect of the situation improving as a result of our actions is doubtful.

We see suffering, either in images on TV of distant conflict or natural disaster, or as we walk down State Street in Madison. We’ve got to do something! The need is great; the suffering profound, our compassion, guilt, generosity, compel us to action.

Those of us who are involved in direct ministry and outreach to homeless people know the complexity of the situation. We know all about the many reasons why people become and remain homeless—illness, mental illness, poor life choices, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse. We also know about the systemic issues, a medical system that fails the neediest; racism; lack of education; family systems that have been in cycles of poverty, violence, abuse, etc., for generations; a 2% vacancy rate for rental housing in Madison. There are also all of the ways our local, state, and federal government have pursued policies that contribute to the problems that they are trying to solve. We know that the help we offer is often little more than a bandaid.

The problems are complex. The need is so great. What can we do? What should we do?

We should do what we are doing.

We should be advocates. We should be advocates for those who have no voice and no power. We should call our institutions: government, schools, universities, businesses, communities of faith, to respond to the need in our communities. We should demand that they serve the needs of the powerless, the hungry, the weak. A society is judged not on what it accomplishes, on its wealth or military power, but on how it treats those who are at its margins, the impotent, widows, orphans, the elderly.

We should be compassionate and merciful. As Americans, we claim that all are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. As a Christian, I believe that all are created in the image of God, that we share with the vilest criminal, the disabled, the mentally ill, a common human nature that reflects the nature of God. The humanity that unites us across race, class, and gender demands that we build a community in which all have access to the basic necessities of life and all are able to flourish as human beings.

When we can do nothing more than offer a sandwich, a sleeping bag, a kind word, perhaps a hug, we are offering what is often called a ministry of presence, a willingness and commitment to be among those who Jesus called “the least of these.” Jesus told us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, we are feeding, clothing, visiting Jesus Christ himself.

The problems will remain. The suffering will continue. We cannot solve the world’s problems, whether it’s the homeless in Madison or unimaginable horrors in Syria. The love we share is the love of Christ. When we share that love we are affirming the dignity of every human being and we are bearing witness to the image of God that we all reflect. We are also calling ourselves and our community to our better nature and to a deeper humanity.

We have to be the conscience, the moral compass of our community. Our voices call our community to become better than it is, to be a place and a people that protect the neediest among us. Our actions, as futile as they may be, challenge everyone to reach out beyond themselves to their neighbors in need and join in the effort to help those who cannot help themselves.

So Tami, that’s what we have to do. We have to continue to advocate, to help, and to be present with the weakest members of our society. It’s hard, exhausting, and often demoralizing. In our actions, our presence, and our love, we bear witness to God’s redemptive love and grace. And through it all, we need to pray.

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.


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.