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All of Us Are One, Street Pulse

A Personal Experience with Homelessness in Wisconsin

By David Gegenhuber
Printed in Street Pulse, January 2013, Vol. 7 Issue 13

While the reasons for homelessness can be categorized, the circumstances for homelessness are as numerous as there are homeless people. My circumstances are financial, as they are for the majority. But to provide real focus to the problem of homelessness, one must also see the view from inside the day-to-day existence of a homeless person. And as a homeless person, the best way I can give any reader the sense of that existence is to relate my own experience.

My homelessness began in Jefferson County nearly 22 months ago as of this writing. As in most counties outside the largest population centers of Wisconsin, there is little help for the homeless in the rural areas of this state. Needing immediate help, I was given some temporary housing assistance through the generosity of the local churches, the Salvation Army of Jefferson County, and the Community Action Coalition in Watertown. They provided me with one-week stays at local hotels, but hotel rooms were only a solution for the very short term. These resources are understandably very limited due to funding as explained to me by these providers, and I very quickly found myself on the street with no money and out of options.

As is the truth for so many homeless people, finding help from friends and family can be near impossible for a variety of reasons, increasingly because of the state of our economy. Many homeless people, myself included, just have no one to turn to for help with such a desperate financial problem. Desperation becomes a key word to the choices that homeless people must make, and that feeling continues throughout their homeless experience.

So here I was standing on the street corner – nowhere to go with the snow reaching the tops of my shoes. This is the time that otherwise reasonable people consider suicide as their worst, best, only option. The thought was racing through my mind at that time too, but I had the presence of mind to reach out to a good friend and call him on the phone. As we talked, we came to the conclusion that I could either carry out this final option, or I could call the police to tell them of my intention to carry out this final option. Since I am writing this now, I don’t think I need to express my decision here. But in fairness, I must also tell you that my decision came out of the need to just keep moving forward.

For the most part, I must say that all the professionals I have encountered in this period to this date have been well-intentioned if not extremely helpful. The police handled me with great care and compassion when they came to the street corner that night and took me to the local hospital. It was rather late at night then, but a Jefferson County Human Services social worker came there and I was taken to the mental health facility at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Milwaukee. This experience provided me with 2 important fulfillments of need. The most basic need was to have a place to stay and be safe. But this also gave me the opportunity to talk through my desperation and reflect on my situation in a way that allowed me to move forward.

My stay at Rogers lasted a week, and during this time, the staff there was working on a place for me to go after my release. I was referred and then taken to the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, a men’s homeless shelter located on the edge of the Marquette campus in downtown Milwaukee.

To walk into a homeless shelter for the very first time can be a frightening experience for just about anyone. While the reason for being there is evident before you even walk in the door, one can be overcome with facing the unknown. The mission is housed in a renovated old high school, huge in design with its classic turn-of-the-20th century architecture and intimidating in its structure. Upon entering the door, I found myself in a small bullet-proof glass-enclosed lobby with a security guard standing on the other side of a sliding glass window. I was asked to provide my identification and I was checked for outstanding warrants. After I was cleared, I was allowed into the facility where a staff member completed my intake and explained the rules and procedures. I was given a card, the size of a business card, which included my bed number and codes written in regarding my disability status. As my arrival was in the evening, I sat in the day room for a couple of hours before bed time arrived and I was assigned a locker. The lockers were roomy enough to hold a fully loaded backpack, but I had arrived there with only the clothes on my back.

All of the 224 beds – 122 bunk beds – are on the second floor of this facility, as is the shower room. The same bed is assigned to each guest throughout his stay of consecutive nights. Upon entry to the second floor via the line-up of men, we were given a numbered plastic milk crate that corresponded to our bed number. We were required to strip and take a quick shower, returning the milk crate with all our day clothes to the staffed room that provided us the crates. We were left with only our underwear and any sleepwear we had chosen for sleeping that night. A limited number of nightgowns were also provided. Our day clothes were kept there overnight and the temperature in the room was increased to 120 degrees to kill any infestation that they might have carried. The new guests were provided with fresh linens for their beds after the shower.

Cell phones and other electronic devices are forbidden in the sleeping area. Guests are checked visually for any contraband as they enter the shower room area. Lights out is at 9:15 PM and no talking is permitted after lights out. (A little aside – I did not fully understand the numbered bed system and had gotten into the wrong bed that first night. Oh, they were not happy about that. I was hauled down to the front desk and questioned, but they realized then it was just an honest rookie mistake.) Wake up call is 5:15 AM and breakfast is provided at 6 AM. By my first morning there, I had rested enough to take a more brave perspective of the situation I was facing.

From the night before and far past dawn’s early light, it was quickly apparent that discipline was the rule here. The staff was very consistent and rigid about the rules, and it was apparent that they had received a sufficient amount of training for their positions. .During my 2 week stay, there were a few conflicts among the guests, but the staff managed these incidents in a way that suggested that they had been trained for conflict management. The situations seemed to be managed more like a police officer assessing the situation at hand rather than just following procedure by the book, and each situation was quickly brought under control. But in certain instances, more extreme measures were necessary, where a guest might be asked to leave the facility for a determined number of days. Overall however, the guests were more well behaved here than I had previously imagined they would be.

Guests were allowed to come and go as they wished throughout the day, for remember, this was not a prison. The day room was available to anyone that wished to stay there, and initially I was spending my time there, too. But I started to get acquainted with some of the men there, and I discovered that many of them spent their day at the Milwaukee Public Library, which is an 8-block walk from the shelter. This gave me computer access, as I was still carrying my old, outdated but sufficient laptop. Lunch was provided daily at the shelter, but these men showed me other options for receiving meals from community and church groups in the area. Very quickly, I learned that I had no fear of going hungry if I was willing to seek out a meal.

Having survived my 2 week stay at the rescue mission, I decided to go back to Jefferson County. I had a little money then, but I knew it wouldn’t last long. I had become acquainted with a clergyman in Watertown that had since moved to Fort Atkinson, and I went there because I had no other personal emotional support at that time. This clergyman helped me when I ran out of money again, but in good conscience, I could not continue to keep asking for more. Out on the street again, I was living on bananas and corn chips, and I spent 6 nights sleeping under a footbridge that spanned the Rock River. It was secluded enough that I would not be seen there. Aside from a windy downpour of rain one night, I found the experience a lot more tolerable than I had imagined for the first 5 nights.
On the sixth night, it was just another night under the bridge until I was awakened about 12:30 AM by the ferocious growl of an unhappy wildcat, which I later identified though a little research as a wild cougar. It was the very growl that you have heard in every TV western show involving a wildcat, and in the split second that I had awakened, I thought I was at home and had fallen asleep with the TV on. But I quickly realized this was the real thing as I opened my eyes to see this big angry cat staring me down from a rock some 30 feet away. I actually said, “OK mister wildcat, let me get my shoes and my stuff and I will leave.” I crossed the bridge and continued an uneasy sleep on the opposite bank of the river.

To say the least, it was time for me to make a hard decision about what to do next. Remembering the experience of the social worker taking me to Milwaukee, I decided to call the Jefferson County Department of Human Services for help. I had researched homeless shelters in Madison prior to this time, and I had seen the Porchlight website on the internet. This was Sunday when I had made my initial call to Human Services, but the social worker came to interview me that day to be sure my thinking was stable and that I was no danger to myself. She was not familiar with Porchlight but would pass along my need to get there to the Monday morning regular staff. So that night I “slept” on a park bench along the riverwalk.

Monday morning (July 10, 2012 – I remember the date so well), I received a call from another Jefferson County Human Resources social worker regarding my situation. She was not familiar with Porchlight in Madison but she made a few phone calls to get me a referral and arranged transportation by a volunteer to bring me to Madison. It was late in the afternoon then, and intake to the shelter would not occur until 7:30 PM. The men’s drop-in shelter is located at Grace Episcopal Church, and I was dropped off on the corner there. Being unfamiliar with Madison, I sat there for the remaining time.

As the 7 o’clock hour approached, I noticed several men gathering there with backpacks and other means of carrying their belongings. Just before 7:30, the men, whom by this time I had identified as my fellow guests, began lining up at a door on the church grounds. After a short time, a staff member came out and asked if there was anyone in line that was at the shelter for the first time. I was escorted into the building where another staff member checked my ID. I was given a personal information sheet to fill out and then taken to the basement of the church building where the sleeping area is located.

At that time, I was told to choose a bed and was taken to a linen closet to select one blanket and one sheet. There were no pillows made available. The closet was rather disorganized as the linens were largely just thrown onto the shelves. Many of the linens were ripped and stained. None of the linens fit the bunk bed mattresses. I was grateful to just have a place to sleep, but unsure if I was subject to any risk to my personal health and hygiene.

After making up my bed as well as I could, given the provisions, I was taken on a short tour of the facility by one of the volunteers, who was actually one of my fellow homeless in need of shelter. He showed me a list of rules that was posted on the wall and told me the times for dinner and cigarette breaks. Other than these breaks, guests were not allowed to leave the building until the door was opened at 6 A.M. the following morning, unless pre-arranged with staff. It was also explained that guests must alternate nights between this location and another location, known as shelter 2, at St. John’s Lutheran Church on East Washington Avenue. I will address this fact further in this writing. But this was the extent of my orientation to the Porchlight men’s drop-in shelter.

Meals are an interesting proposition each day and can range from surprising to disappointing in their nature. The shelter provides breakfast and dinner only at the Grace Church location, and occasionally provides a bag lunch to take with us. After a time, we could sense whether our expectations should be high or low, depending on who was providing the meal. Volunteer groups often provide dinner meals which always give us high hopes for an abundant, nutritious meal. Second helpings might occasionally be offered, but there are many times that they are not made available and the same foods would appear on our breakfast plates the next morning. But when the meals are not served by volunteers, the meals range from sloppy joes and chips for dinner to eggs, sausage and cereal for breakfast, and so many times, breakfast consists of only cereal. Again, I am grateful to have anything at all, but it can be hard to face a long day with a beginning of just a small bowl of cereal.

Showers may be taken at the Grace Church location. There are 9 shower heads in very close quarters. It seems that the only rule regarding personal hygiene at the shelter is that one must not emit personal body odor – an understandable rule, but largely insufficient to prevent the intrusion of possible bacteria and various human transmittable infestations. I discovered that many shelter guests also slept outdoors on many nights during the summer, which gave myself and many of my fellow shelter guests more reason to be concerned about protecting our personal hygiene during our stay there.

In August, my fears became reality when I was struck with an infestation of scabies that came from the linens I had slept on at the shelter. Scabies are microscopic mites that get under the skin with symptoms ranging from severe, painful itching to hives. It took 2 weeks worth of antibiotics and covering my skin with a prescription cream to kill the eggs before I was freed from this maddening disease ridden creature. Since then, I have also seen several guests fall victim to bed bug bites, a problem that is treated when discovered but never properly controlled and defeated.

As I mentioned earlier, there was another shelter location available to guests during the summer at St. John’s Lutheran Church. And as of November 1, a third location was opened at First United Methodist Church on Washington Avenue. All guests are required to sign in at the Grace Church location regardless of the shelter location they had chosen or were assigned to for that night. After November 1, all guests are required to remain at the Grace Church shelter until the staff would announce that they could go to the other shelters, generally between 8:30 and 9 P.M. The winter hours begin at 5 P.M. each day, so there can be 150 men confined to this small area in the basement of the church for nearly 4 hours. This can often result in high tensions as these men can hardly help but get into each other’s way and on each other’s nerves. Again, the only relief to this is hourly cigarette breaks that allow the men to get outside the building in the driveway area for a few minutes.

Whenever many people are held together for an extended period of time, the need for order is a matter of necessity. The Milwaukee mission had honed this to a science and was apparent by the lack of conflict among the guests and the overall good conduct of the guests. As an observation, it might also be noted that housing all of these men under one roof and a trained staff allowed for consistency of applying the rules and procedures. The boundaries of good conduct were drawn, understood and largely met.

Perhaps the most difficult way of maintaining order is to separate a large group of people under a common cause into smaller groups with separate leaders. We could look to the history of peoples to find many examples of this. When power is delegated from the top of leadership down among its separated factions, the appointed leaders of the smaller groups tend to interpret the rules and procedures from their own viewpoint. This can create confusion in following the rules as the people are moved from group to group and conflicts will inevitably arise. Personalities often contribute to the conflict, and much too often, a conflict arises between staff and guests in the Porchlight shelters. The management may address the issue when brought to their attention, but many times they are ignored when deemed unimportant in their own viewpoint. Conflict management here is largely a matter of singular personal interpretation. Thus, the rules and procedures are never fully drawn, understood or met.

The need for housing the homeless in a singular controlled environment is a matter of common sense. A staff trained in conflict management and sensitivity provides not only a better sense of order, but allows the guests feel more personal dignity and respect for their peers when the rules are understood and followed by all who are bound by them – guests and staff alike. There is never a perfect solution to the problem of homelessness, but a complete understanding of personal dignity and the need for everyone to get through the desperate times without hurting ourselves and each other any further is the most human endeavor we can undertake. I urge Dane County and the city of Madison to follow the successful model of the Milwaukee Rescue Mission and create a 24 hour 7 day homeless shelter that can give us the environment we need to focus on solving our homelessness in a safe and dignified way without having to further fight the difficulties of just being homeless. As Tom Joad said in Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, “I’m just trying to get along without shoving anybody.”

Experienced and written by David Gegenhuber

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About Operation Welcome Home

OWH is a group of homeless people in Madison, WI and their allies organizing around the root causes of homelessness- racism, poverty, and criminalization. We are fighting for housing, jobs, and an end to the criminalization of poverty.

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