Madison: Only The Best Will Do
by David Gegenhuber
Back in late November when I arrived here at the Day Warming Center, I had already been homeless here in Madison for 4 months. Along the way during those 4 months, I met homeless advocate Ronnie Barbett, who helped me understand more clearly the reasons that the homeless services provided by the city and county were in such disarray. We talked a lot about the things he was doing about the situation and he listened to my experience with homelessness in Milwaukee. It was at his urging that I came to the Warming Center to get more involved with the homeless cause as well as to see that this was a good place to be warm and off the street during the day.
As I spent more time here talking to Ronnie about the homeless situation in Madison, I was a little taken aback by the fact that this city in particular would be so disorganized and dysfunctional about its homeless population, as I had such a different view of Madison from the outside. I grew up in the Chicago area, and all my life, I heard about how progressive and innovative Madison is because of the quality education provided and the great research done here at the University of Wisconsin. Even the football team was always highly ranked. So why, among all this only-the-best-will-do mentality, are the homeless in this city being treated like Depression-era hobos? Why are the shelters here like broken down old dirty flop houses spread out all over downtown? Why are there homeless people hanging out and sleeping around the Capitol Square and down the side streets? This is not the Madison my Wisconsin-born parents brought me up to envision.
It seems that the difference between Madison and the other cities in this state and perhaps the nation, I have since found out, is the arbitrary decision-making here as opposed to strategic planning that seems to be done by other governing bodies in funding for homeless services. In so many other cities, one does not have to go to the city meetings or pour through piles of funding documents to see the results of following guidelines for funding homeless needs. Any short stay in a shelter in these cities will serve as an example of how to best serve the needs of the homeless in a fiscally manageable way. From properly trained staff and security to adequate showers and toilets to hygienic methods of assigning beds, and even in the way these cities control the length of stay for their guests, these cities maintain effective and dignified shelter systems merely by following sensible and clearly defined guidelines that serve the needs of the homeless as well as their fiscal responsibility to their constituents.
When I was in Milwaukee, I didn’t see any homeless people that were on the streets with sleeping bags, their hands full of bags or carts full of their belongings. But in the 6 months I have been here in Madison, I haven’t walked around the square, down State Street or any street in this city on any day without spotting at least one homeless person that must get around with their heavy burden. And having spent time in the shelters here, I have seen many homeless people struggle with the existing shelter system in a kind of push-and-shove battle just to have a meal and a place to sleep. Tensions are always high every night at all or any of the men’s shelters. And in talking with our homeless female counterparts, the struggle is the same in their shelter existence here, too.
As my time and experience of homelessness here has expanded, I have come to realize that a big part of the gaps in understanding the needs of the homeless by the powers-that-be that fund the homeless programs here in Madison is a misunderstanding the nature of modern homelessness, and as a result, an apathetic approach to fulfilling their needs. The perception is not a new one; our culture has long seen the homeless as shiftless, lazy, or even crazy. Yes, there is some truth to that, and I will discuss that aspect and possible solutions in a moment. But it is necessary for the powers-that-be here to open their eyes to the current economic reality – people of all walks of life and their recently lost economic livelihoods have been forced into the streets and into a new homeless reality out of necessity to survive, not of their own choice. Most of these people never imaged to be in this situation, and therefore just like the powers-that-be that have jobs and a place to live, never gave a second thought to what a homeless existence is really like to live on a daily basis.
While some of us don’t have those middle and upper middle-class backgrounds, we do have the desire to move ahead with our lives regardless of our backgrounds. There are a variety of employment histories to be found here, from janitors to master electricians. So many people here that just want a job and a decent place to live. Those are the people that the powers-that-be need to be helping. And quite frankly, we agree with the powers that there are those among us that wish to do nothing and let everyone else take care of them. And that’s where the division and frustration lies. The powers don’t want to fund shiftlessness, and we don’t want them to, either. That’s how homeless advocates are born. More than just addressing the issues, advocates want to see that both sides of the issues are well served by guidelines; envisioning, seeking, suggesting, establishing guidelines.
On March 6, the Homeless Issues Committee graciously and bravely came to the Daytime Warming Center to hear anything from our own ranks that we wanted to address. It was so enlightening to me because I was expecting to hear only complaint after complaint from our members, but instead these people came armed with a good common sense view of their situation and even some interesting suggested solutions – yes, guidelines. As for the situations, one thinking homeless man pointed out that among us there are the work histories from janitors to master electricians, as I mentioned earlier. He suggested that right here we have much of the necessary workforce to renovate any building that could become a permanent 24 hour, 365 day shelter. A readily available and cost saving measure that any funding body should understand. Another homeless man related his experience in the Milwaukee shelter system that the guests were required to show written weekly progress on their search for jobs in order to extend their stay at the shelter. Guidelines. Resources. Results.
All the money that is thrown at homeless issues just go out the window if it doesn’t produce results. Spreading out services across this city are largely wasted when they don’t produce results. Keeping this chaos alive only causes stress, not results. With the limited time and limited resources that have been provided to this Day Center, we have produced some results. But even here, the chaos and stress continues to exist because of the pressure to perform with a deadline to close and to exist without the effectiveness that adequate resources and established guidelines that a full service, full time shelter system can provide.
So I say to the powers-that-be: listen to the advocates, listen to what the homeless have to say because they really are making a lot of sense. We will get off the streets, get on with our lives, if you just give us the right place, the right resources and the right guidelines to sustain ourselves while we climb out of this struggle we never wanted in the first place. We ask for nothing more than to live up to that only-the-best-will-do mentality that I was taught to envision about Madison. And I assure you that with the proper guidelines in the right environment, the shiftless, lazy and crazy will either change their view or will move on to some other place that may or may not tolerate them. They will have no other choice.