Finding solutions for Madison’s homeless

Community leaders and social services groups...
Finding solutions for Madison’s homeless

A small mountain of sleeping bags strapped to dirty backpacks and rolling suitcases stacked along the front doors of Madison’s City-County Building. Assaults and drug deals in the darkened alcoves of Philosopher’s Grove, the public park at the neck of State Street just off the Capitol Square. Fistfights next to families with young children gathered to watch the annual Ironman Wisconsin race. Reports of public urination, even defecation, and wild, unpredictable mobs.

By the time mayor Paul Soglin’s October 1, 2015, “crackdown” outlaws camping on the steps of his front porch, his city’s ongoing homeless saga is already well documented. Even the New York Times weighed in, with a September 21 article juxtaposing Madison’s progressive, “welcoming spirit” with an “exasperated” mayor’s fight against a forty percent “surge in homelessness” in which filthy, unruly, addicted, violent criminals routinely refuse help.

But according to Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight–whose organization primarily serves single men at three downtown church shelters–homelessness for single individuals is actually down slightly over the past two years.

“I’m not ready to go out and declare a victory,” says Schooler. “There is still a major problem, but I think people are looking at the City-County Building and saying homelessness has just radically increased. That’s not accurate. What has happened is that homelessness has become more noticeable.”

With the help of sixty-plus volunteer organizations, Porchlight serves about sixty thousand meals each year. Downtown, it provides emergency shelter at Grace Episcopal, St. John’s Lutheran and First United Methodist for up to eighty men per night in the summer and one hundred and thirty in the winter–one hundred and eighty is the highest. But “that number [of homeless people] you see in front of the City-County Building is mostly forty to fifty.”

In other words, the most visible of Madison’s 3,500 homeless in actuality make up only about one percent of its total. Complicating matters further, much of the visibly bad behavior downtown isn’t coming from the homeless people at all.

“From a downtown resident perspective, it’s taken a lot of work to get people to realize that when they see a homeless person sleeping in front of Starbuck’s, that’s a different issue from someone who’s misbehaving in Philosopher’s Grove,” says attorney Jeff Vercauteren, who also serves as president of the Capitol Neighborhoods association. His group has hosted forums with members from Porchlight, downtown churches and city and county staff to address downtown homelessness. Vercauteren says his association is attempting to “make a distinction between the homeless population downtown and then behavioral issues downtown, because there certainly isn’t a direct correlation between the two.”

Addressing that distinction is the logic behind Soglin’s proposed ordinances aimed at the downtown homeless. The October 1 deadline made camping outside the City-County Building illegal; a similar ban on after-hours “loitering” inside the building was already in effect. (One week later, all but one City Council member voted to reject a second proposal that fined first-time violators $100 for sitting on downtown sidewalks or using public benches for more than one hour.) Throughout the process, Soglin has faced widespread criticism–especially by his own council–for “criminalizing homelessness.”

After all, banning the homeless from park benches and city steps without giving them a better place to go hardly solves the problem. But Soglin says the bad behavior is worsened when people gather in groups, so dispersing the crowds dilutes the ill effects.

“The purpose of ordinances is not to extract fines; it is to give police officers and health officials the laws necessary to change behaviors on the street,” he says. And he believes it’s working. Soglin claims there were only ten downtown ambulance calls in October, the first month of the ordinances (down from a twenty-five to forty-five average over the preceding fourteen months), and a two hundred to three hundred percent reduction in police calls.

But most homeless people are not violent, nor are they panhandlers. “There’s a lot of stereotypes that surround homelessness and they’re totally, totally incorrect in a lot of circumstances,” says Schooler. “Virtually all of our volunteers will tell you that when you’re sitting there serving that meal, and you pass that meal across the counter to somebody, you realize that the only thing that differentiates you from that person is the length and width of that counter.”

Further, those who actually are homeless downtown are also extraordinarily vulnerable–and many refuse services. Schooler says forty to fifty percent of all single homeless men and women suffer from severe and persistent mental illnesses, making some people an easy mark for drug dealers and other predators, as well as distrustful of people and systems aimed at helping. That’s why in the last couple of years the city, county, United Way and Porchlight have “significantly expanded” outreach efforts, says Schooler, stationing case and social services workers at the Central Library (which has become a de facto day shelter) and the drop-in shelter.

“It takes a while to build up the trust, the rapport, even if you don’t make any demands of the person other than that they move into housing,” says Schooler, who also hopes an upcoming Day Resource Center could relieve much of the pressure on Madison’s homeless, as well as its services providers. After stops and starts at a few other locations, in the fall of 2015, Dane County purchased $1.42 million worth of properties on the 1300 block of East Washington Avenue. Pending city permits and renovations, the county hopes to open the center this fall.

The Day Resource Center could offer basic services such as meals, showers and storage, as well as serve as an umbrella for connecting vulnerable people with appropriate services, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, job skills training and more. But it’s faced a number of starts and stops, most notably pushback from area residents worried about hosting such a center in their backyards.

“They have fears, some are real, and some are unwarranted, I think,” says Susan Schmitz, the president of Downtown Madison, Inc. But it’s going to take a united effort to address the needs of downtown homeless individuals, she says.

“You have to get folks on the street into a place where they can get access to showers, laundry, lockers and, of course, food, and then in those facilities you have stations where people are working from Porchlight, Tellurian, Housing Initiatives … and then you get them connected, and then they can refer them into the right kind of housing,” says Schmitz. She says a collaboration of four entities–the city, the county, the United Way umbrella of services providers and the private sector–is critical to building a continuum from identification on through to housing, and that, despite perceptions of the opposite, downtown businesses are deeply committed to being part of the solution. “In this city, the private sector is ready to step up.”

Vercauteren, who also serves on the DMI board, echoes Schmitz’s sentiment, one he says is often mischaracterized in the public conversation. “I think generally downtown residents are interested in being part of the solution,” he says, “because the current situation is just not good for anyone.”

Schooler, Soglin and Schmitz all insist the big-picture answer is affordable housing, particularly with supportive services. In addition to its shelters, Porchlight owns and operates twenty-three different transitional and permanent housing properties across the city. Sites overwhelmingly are in the metro area because of the need for available mass transportation for residents. The organization is in the process of completing a capital campaign to build twenty-eight units on Lien Road, and in late 2015, in partnership with the Community Development Authority and the City of Madison Community Development Block Grant office, it opened eight units by Madison College’s Truax campus. Additionally, Soglin says the recent surge in high-end luxury development isn’t the problem; it’s an important part of the solution to raising the city’s vacancy rate. When one hundred brand-new units are filled, one hundred old units open up. Meanwhile, his 2015 budget pledged $25 million over the next five years to create housing for low-income and homeless individuals.

“But to make these projects work, you not only need the housing, you need the supportive services,” says Soglin, citing challenges of housing supply, lack of operating dollars and not enough support from state and federal funding (seventy-five percent of Wisconsin’s new construction is occurring in Dane County). For example, “It’s a challenge for organizations such as Housing Initiatives to make these facilities work, if they can’t access sufficient disability funding for their tenants.”

Housing Initiatives, a twenty-one-year-old nonprofit organization focused exclusively on providing permanent housing for mentally ill homeless and veterans, might just be the most effective permanent supportive housing provider you’ve never heard of. In the fall of 2015, Housing Initiatives quietly secured apartments for five of the individuals who’d been living on the City-County Building steps. They joined the ranks of nearly six hundred homeless people who’ve entered the Housing Initiatives program over the past two decades–almost all of whom are still off the streets or out of shelters.

“Ninety-five percent of everybody we put into housing stays there,” says executive director Dean Loumos of the innovative program that’s hyperfocused on relationships, both with the homeless population it serves and the fifty landlords with whom it places tenants. The former needs to be treated with the dignity and respect it deserves, and the latter need assurances that Housing Initiatives will be there if things get a little dicey.

“We always do what we say we’re going to do,” says Loumos, who doesn’t employ case workers himself but rather partners with seventeen area agencies to provide appropriate services. He says he can’t guarantee that landlords won’t have problems with his tenants but adds, “I guarantee that if you call us, we’ll come and address the problem.”

Housing Initiatives also owns twenty-eight buildings scattered in neighborhoods across the city, most four units or smaller. The largest is the nine-unit Robert Baum House off Sherman Avenue, where the organization’s offices are also housed. The organization’s unique financial model allows the program to be somewhat self-funding; acting as landlords for its own tenants, it can receive rent subsidies. To date, Housing Initiatives has managed its efforts without any direct city or county budgeting–until now. In October 2015, the organization learned it will receive a $500,000 grant in 2016 from Dane County’s $2 million Affordable Housing Development Fund. It also received $25,000 for a new client services supervisor position from the county and funding from the City Affordable Housing Trust Fund through the city CDBG office. Housing Initiatives was quick to translate that into human currency, announcing the grant “will enable Housing Initiatives to end homelessness for ten more veterans in early 2016.”

Loumos knows the names and backstories of all 130 people currently living in Housing Initiatives units. So do his maintenance guys–Tony, Gery and Mickey–who not only run all over town fixing clogs and repairing problems, but are also trained to recognize when a tenant might be suffering symptoms related to mental illness, and to immediately connect those people with counseling, substance abuse programs, medication therapy or whatever that tenant needs that day.

Erik Pettersen is one of those people. Up until his early twenties, Pettersen enjoyed a “fairly normal” life, graduating from St. Olaf College with chemistry and French literature degrees and working in an environmental chemistry lab–when he was suddenly seized by hallucinations. “I found myself jobless, homeless, confused and very ill,” he says. Originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, then schizo-affective disorder, Pettersen spent a nightmarish fifteen years ricocheting between Mendota Mental Health Institute and other care centers and group homes.

“Three years ago, Housing Initiatives took me in,” says Pettersen, who now has an apartment, is enrolled in a computer assistance training program at Madison College, was named a Backyard Hero by the Sierra Club and finished schooling at Madison College with a GPA of 3.95 or better in his classes. “Housing Initiatives is my saving grace. I love living here. It’s a quiet, safe place where I’ve been able to heal my mind.”

That’s it right there, says Loumos: the opportunity to get your health and life in order without worrying about where you’re going to sleep tonight, or next month or even next year.

“We work with tenants to make sure that they will never lose their housing because of an illness-related issue, and ensure that they’ll be able to come back to that place if they have to go and get hospitalized or need some treatment,” says Loumos. “This is yours. So, having that sense of independence and having ownership about what’s happening with your life, everybody wants that. Everybody should have that.”

While there are so many upriver factors that contribute to eventual homelessness–mental health, addiction, access to education, job training, quality child care, affordable health care, lack of transportation–and while a formal day resource center will certainly have a significant impact, ultimately, the proven path starts with a safe space to call one’s own.

“First and foremost is housing,” says Schooler. “The city, Porchlight, Housing Initiatives, other housing providers, we’re all trying to develop additional affordable housing.”

That is indeed the focus, says Soglin, despite the more visible storyline downtown.
“The solution to solving the problems of homelessness,” says Soglin, “is housing first.”