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.

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One thought on “A New Era? Changing attitudes and approaches to homelessness in Madison

  1. Thank you for your thoughts and your hope and your conversations with people who are experiencing homelessness.

    As a Make Room For Youth member I am thrilled that our film is included in your message.

    MRFY is happy to answer questions about the
    film, why we made it and what our plans are
    to eliminate youth homlessness in Dane
    County. Please contact us at
    mrfydane@gmail.com

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