by Jaleah Price, age 15
The details of homeless individuals’ faces—tear stains, worried eyes, scars and battle wounds—are puzzle pieces of a unique story. These faces walk among us everyday, some are easier to point out than others. Are we, as a community and a state, helping these unfortunate individuals to our fullest potential?
In 2013, the state of Wisconsin was home to 27,556 individuals who reported being homeless. Of those individuals, 3,912 lived in Dane County. Evidence indicates that there is a strong connection between poverty and homelessness. Almost 13 percent of Wisconsin residents lived below the poverty line in 2013, nearly 4 percent of whom experienced homelessness. There are currently programs in Dane County, such as the Salvation Army and Porchlight, that help families and single individuals facing homelessness. However, more needs to be done to strengthen these programs to empower, and improve the lives of Madison’s homeless community.
For example, Porchlight only has enough beds to provide 135 single homeless men shelter each night. In contrast, the Salvation Army is a 22,000 square-foot facility that not only provides overnight shelter to single individuals but also to families. Eighteen rooms are located in the upper level of the Salvation Army for temporary housing.
However, the shelter, like Porchlight, merely has enough mattresses and cots to provide overnight shelter for up to 75 homeless individuals.
These shelters are limited both by space and the number of individuals who need their services. In 2013, 1,041 individuals in families were turned away without assistance, such as shelter or vouchers. During that same year, 402 single adult men were denied overnight shelter at Porchlight’s drop-in center alone, and 211 single women city-wide were turned away without shelter. Shelter employees suggest that the number one reason why individuals in families were denied shelter without assistance was because of lack of both shelter space and funds to pay for motel vouchers.
Another factor that hinders the homeless population is that families or individuals often use up the 60- or 90-day time limit of shelter service allotted to them. I recently stayed at the Salvation Army and witnessed this firsthand. A hard-working twenty-something lady had used up her time, and was asked to leave the shelter. While she was saying her goodbyes, another single homeless woman and I were heartbroken because as far as we knew, she did not have anywhere else to go. The mandatory limits on how long an individual can be serviced by a shelter are not designed to help individuals facing homelessness long-term. The anxiety and stress that accompanies this instability no doubt leads to lasting trauma.
To address these issues, a new initiative called Housing First aims to provide additional housing and services to the homeless community. As a part of this initiative, Madison is building 60 units for single adults and 41 units for homeless families. This is a step towards acknowledging the need for affordable housing. Again, there is a strong connection between poverty and homelessness: the housing market is continuously growing more expensive. Those currently living in poverty cannot keep up, and may eventually end up homeless.
The Housing First program will be beneficial to the homeless in the future, but it will not help them now. What can be done today to help the homeless? According to a statement published in the Wisconsin State Journal, advocate Brenda Konkel suggested, “short-term solutions could include dropping limits on the number of days people can stay in a shelter, or the city or county providing land for an encampment with water, toilets and electricity.”
If every resident of Dane County knew what it meant first-hand to not have a home, to live on the street or in a car, to worry constantly about his or her next meal, the homeless population would certainty not be near 30,000.
Fortunately, not everyone has gone through something as traumatic as being homeless, but everyone has had their share of worry, fear, sadness, and disappointment. The homeless community needs our help, and a lot of us have the resources to help them. So why aren’t we lending a hand to the unfortunate?
[Sources: The Cap Times, Wisconsin State Journal, The State of Homelessness in Wisconsin 2013: An annual Wisconsin Homeless Management Information System report, Annual Report On Homeless Persons
Served in Dane County 2013]