City News

‘Bursting at the seams’: With low temperatures hitting Madison, homeless shelters reach capacity

Porchlight and Salvation Army homeless shelters abide by a strict policy to not turn anyone away when wind chills reach under 20 degrees.

Porchlight and Salvation Army homeless shelters abide by a strict policy to not turn anyone away when wind chills reach under 20 degrees.

Image By: Clayton Jannusch

With temperatures rapidly decreasing and an increase of snowy days, Madison’s homeless population faces new difficulties — as windchills reach below 20 degrees, some homeless shelters are already filled to capacity.

Porchlight, Dane County’s largest homeless shelter for men, accommodated an additional 135 men one night this week, according to Executive Director Karla Thennes. 

“Porchlight is the largest provider of services as it gets colder,” Thennes said. “Our emergency shelter is bursting at the seams with this cold weather.” 

The shelter has three locations located at Grace Episcopal Church, First United Lutheran and St. John’s Lutheran. When the main center, Grace Episcopal Church, cannot hold everyone, men are escorted to the other two sites by night managers. 

The Salvation Army coordinates efforts with Porchlight and provides shelter for single women and families. Both shelters emphasized their willingness to take in anyone seeking shelter on these frigid winter nights — and that no one should have to be turned away.

In fact, according to Thennes, both Porchlight and the Salvation Army hold strict policies in which they never turn anyone away due to capacity on weather expectation nights, or nights with a windchill under 20 degrees. 

Thennes explained how Porchlight is low on resources, as their facilities are currently full. She emphasized how donations, monetary and itemized, make a significant difference. 

“The three biggest necessities we are lacking right now at Porchlight are coffee, full-sized blankets that can be washed and winter boots,” Thennes said.

The Salvation Army of Dane County’s greatest need for women and children currently are towels, blankets and sheets, according to their website. 

The city also provides support to the homeless when cold temperatures arrive. During the Polar Vortex last year, the Madison Metro drove men seeking shelter from one Porchlight location to another to help avoid instances of frostbite and hypothermia. 

Ald. Micheal Tierney, District 16, serves as a common council member on the Homeless Issues Committee. The city and county are taking measures to help improve overall living conditions for people seeking homes and shelter, Tierney said. 

“The first thing that we are doing is working at the county and city level on different budget initiatives to assist the homeless and price affordable housing alternatives,” Tierney said. “When we invest money, time and effort into constructing affordable living, we stabilize people and help them find housing.” 

However, Tierney stated these affordable living conditions come with a price of their own — like choosing between rent and health care and “exploitative” landlord practices. 

“If we can work in our committee and develop a meaningful, well-crafted solution to affordable housing issues, that is something we can look at pursuing,” Tierney said. 

The Salvation Army is in the process of raising funds to build a new facility. Tierney believes this is a necessary step to increase comfortable housing for those seeking it — especially in the severe cold. 

He added that one of his struggles, as a city official advocating for the housing budget, is trying to cut through some of the stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness, despite “overwhelming support” from the community.

“A lot of people are experiencing homeless — a lot of families and many veterans,” Tierney said. “We need to work through the stereotypes that people have in their minds.”

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