by Sarah Zimmermann
There is a glass-walled study room on the second floor of Central Library, 201 W. Mifflin Street. Day after day, there is a consistent stream of people inside, sometimes with two to three people waiting in line outside the door.
The conversations in this room vary, from light-hearted chats to in-depth discussions on life’s needs and necessities: a place to live, somewhere to work.
Porchlight, which strives to decrease the homeless population by providing shelter, housing, employment, and more for people in the Dane County area, currently works in this conference room at Central Library.
When the new Central Library building was under construction, the City of Madison and Madison Public Library knew they wanted to provide outreach and services to homeless people, said Lisa Mettauer, outreach library for the Madison Public Library. The old building lacked private rooms and space to provide these services, Mettauer said.
“The library is something the whole city depends on to help support the homeless,” Mettauer said.
In response, the Central Library case management project initially began as a jointly funded project with the City of Madison and Dane County to provide services to the homeless, said Sue Wallinger, grants administrator for the City of Madison. Porchlight currently is the provider for the program.
Porchlight is at Central Library seven days a week and is staffed by two library outreach workers, Tyler O’Brien and Laura Wichert. The primary concern is finding housing, Wichert said. Porchlight tends to follow the Housing First approach, which focuses on finding housing for homeless people first, then providing services as needed, Wichert said.
“It’s hard to find stability [in life] without stable housing,” Wichert said.
Finding housing is often a difficult task. Wichert said she looks at either Craigslist or the Tenant Resource Center. Then, she will help people make the calls or fill out an application.
O’Brien said they helped three people into permanent housing this year, with about 5 to 10 people they could help into permanent housing if the funds were available. Porchlight has no funds left for this year, O’Brien said. Occasionally, people can find an apartment, but can’t afford the security deposit, Wichert said.
Another large part of O’Brien and Wichert’s job is helping with job searching and resume building. They also provide referrals to other agencies, such as mental health treatment and the domestic abuse center, Wichert said.
Porchlight also keeps a supply of basic necessities at the library, including blankets, gloves, shampoo, tampons, toothpaste and toothbrushes.
Wichert said it is a huge benefit to have this service at Central Library. Instead of having to set up a meeting with Porchlight, remembering to go to the appointment and figuring out transportation, Porchlight is now just a few feet away for library patrons, Wichert said.
“I’m proud of the library, because I think it shows their investment for ending homelessness in Madison,” Wichert said.
The two of them generally meet with 5 to 25 people per day, Wichert said. O’Brien said they meet with most people multiple times, with meetings lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours. Over time, that connection grows.
“No one program is going to fix everything, but relationships do,” O’Brien said. “We get to meet people. Everyone has a name and a story.”
Having that strong relationship is key to the success, O’Brien said. People come in looking for O’Brien, sometimes just to talk, he said.
“They are my friends now…coming here day after day, talking to people, asking how they are doing,” O’Brien said. “A lot of the responses we get from people are just ‘Thanks for listening.’”
Porchlight isn’t the only group providing services for homeless people at the library. Local organizations such as Tellurian, which provides services for adults and adolescents dealing with substance abuse issues, and Port St. Vincent de Paul, which helps provide supportive, transitional or emergency housing, have services at Central Library as well, Mettauer said.
Bird Ross, the current Artist-in-Residence for the Madison Public Library, is at the library twice a week, fixing and mending clothes for people who need it. Ross has fixed pants, sweaters, backpacks, mended seams and sewn on buttons.
“It’s really been a way to get involved with the public,” Ross said. “[The mending] is really useful to people.”
Ross said she will continue mending until the end of November, when her residency ends.
The design of the new building has also brought comfort to the homeless patrons of the library, Mettauer said. The old Central Library had fewer public areas for people to sit, meaning everyone was crowded in the same general area, leading to noise issues, Mettauer said. When the plan for the new building was set, Mettauer said it was designed to have many options for quiet spaces for people to work and relax.
“It is a haven,” Mettauer said. “There are nooks and crannies that people can stake out as their comfort zone.”
It’s common for people to arrive at the library during the weekdays and see a crowd of people standing on the steps, waiting for the library doors to open at 9 a.m. The library provides books, newspapers, CDs, and computers, all of which fulfil the library’s philosophy of being an “access of knowledge” to people, Mettauer said.
For many homeless patrons, the public computers are especially important, Mettauer said. The computers are constantly in use, filled with people checking email, keeping up with friends on Facebook, reading the news, and looking for jobs.
The city will be funding Porchlight at Central Library through 2016, Mettauer said. Dane County recently accepted a proposal to purchase the former Messner property at 1326 E. Washington Avenue. The property will be used as a day resource center for the homeless.
Once a day resource center opens in Madison, Wallinger said the city will re-evaluate the need of the Central Library case management program. The annual contract for the program is $65,000, Wallinger said. Library officials have indicated they want to continue having the program at Central Library, Wallinger said.
No matter what the future holds, Wichert said the library will continue to be an important place for people. She said she can’t imagine the day resource center completely taking over for the library.
“There’s a lot of resources in the library… books, databases, email…I think that is an important piece that the library offers,” Wichert said. “Sometimes people just want to come and read here, or have peace.”
The library is an open place for everyone, Mettauer said. It’s important to get rid of the stigma against homeless people and reduce prejudice, she said.
“They aren’t just ‘the homeless,’ they’re people in our community,” Mettauer said.