The population of homeless Madisonians has increased and the conditions this community has faced have become increasingly precarious in the past year where the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has had severe financial repercussions for Americans. Homelessness has long been an issue experienced by members of the Madison community, a fact most apparent in the downtown area, where dozens of homeless people have no choice but to live on the streets.
According to The Department of Housing and Urban Development, Dane County homeless services assisted approximately 3,465 local residents from October 2019 to September 2020. Black people made up 46% of this number despite representing only 14% of the county’s total population, while Whites and Latinos represented 41% and 5% respectively. Seventy percent of Dane County’s homeless population is made up of men.
Michael Basford, the director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the number of homeless residents to increase considerably in the past year.
“When the pandemic hit the largest effect that we saw was a substantial increase all over the state in unsheltered homelessness,” he said.
Victor is one Dane County resident who lost his home during 2020 after failing to pay his mortgage due to COVID-19 related financial struggles.
“I went to the hospital for an operation, came back and there's two notices at my door from the sheriff and the bank that said, ‘You got four days to evacuate,’ so that's why I'm out here,” Victor said.
Randy, another homeless Madison resident, echoed this sentiment, saying that the pandemic prevented him from being able to seek treatment for drug addiction.
“It’s impacted me tremendously. I was actually headed to a treatment facility when I was released from jail, and because of COVID-19, they were no longer taking people,” Randy said.
Karla Thennes, the executive director of Porchlight, explained that the restriction of in-person treatment for mental health and drug addiction has been one of the greatest problems faced by the homeless community this past year.
“Anxiety is just through the roof ... Any of our folks with mental health issues were just not doing well at all,” Thennes said. “No one’s sitting here on a Zoom call with a homeless person. They just don't have access to wifi or laptops.”
Basford voiced his frustrations with Madison’s low minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which he feels hampers the ability for homeless people to purchase housing.
“If you're working full time, you should be able to sustain yourself no matter what job that you're doing,” Basford told the Cardinal. “Earning minimum wage, you have to work 94 hours a week to be able to afford a two bedroom apartment in the city of Madison.”
Basford also indicated that officials have ignored the racial disparities present in Madison’s homeless population, which disproportionately is made up of Black people.
“The plan on homelessness for the state that we're operating under is 30 pages long, and I think there's about two sentences that even acknowledge the fact that racial disparities in the homelessness systems and in the housing markets have an effect on what homelessness looks like in Wisconsin,” Basford stated.
Basford, who aims to introduce a racial equity component for a new state housing plan, claims that the increased rates of homelessness among Black people is the result of decades of systemic racism that has economically disenfranchised an entire community.
“This is generations of silent segregation, red lining, lack of access to education and job opportunities,” Basford explained. “Everything that comes with white supremacy.”
“Housing is a right,” he continued. Basford hopes to see a day where homelessness is solely a temporary state. “There's always going to be a situation where somebody falls through the cracks. A system that is heavily invested would be one where somebody's homelessness is brief and it's not recurring.”
While the city and some local non-profit organizations do offer aid in the form of shelter and other necessities, numerous unhoused groups choose not to use these resources to preserve a sense of freedom that many in the homeless community value.
“The freedom's nice. Don't have to worry about bills. Don't have to worry about mortgage,” Victor shared. “On the other side of the coin it can suck. Weather wise. Drama wise. There's a lot of thieves out here.”
Homeless residents have also chosen to avoid shelters due to the risk of theft and potentially contracting COVID-19 from others. According to Thennes, in September and October approximately 250 people chose to sleep outside rather than risk infection at a shelter.
“There's always been that encampment, even in the winter time but nowhere near those numbers,” Thennes stated about how homeless folks must live outside. “People didn't want to be in a mass shelter with 100 people in one location. They thought it was safer to sleep outside.”
The city designated three locations where homeless residents would be allowed to create temporary encampments using tarps and other assorted materials. Thennes explained that the city chose to allow the creation of these encampments so that the homeless population would be less scattered, thereby allowing officials to more easily provide services to the homeless in the future.
Prior to the pandemic, Porchlight’s men's shelters would host 100 men in one room, sleeping only inches apart, Thennes explained.
Once it became clear that the original arrangement was no longer appropriate, Porchlight relocated shelters to temporary locations where cots were spaced 6 plus feet apart and catered meals were provided to guests.
Porchlight also implemented a health screening process consisting of asking guests symptom-related questions, on-site COVID-19 testing and contact tracing via security cameras.
“We've been able to keep our numbers very contained,” stated Thennes, estimating they see only three cases a week.
A temporary men's shelter operated by Porchlight is scheduled to close in October for a new business to move into the property. Porchlight officials are waiting for the city — specifically the City-County Homeless Issues Committee who voted on March 1 to pass this proposal — to announce a new permanent location for a shelter, which Thennes anticipates will be situated near East Towne Mall on Zeier Road.
Thennes shared that during the past year, city and county officials have taken a much more active role in working to assist the local homeless population.
“The city has really taken a lead in finding a location. The [city is] putting in $3 million for the purchase and renovation, the county is matching that,” she explained. “The one positive thing that has come out of covid is it has shone a light on the need for a permanent men's shelter ... At this point they [the city government] have really stepped up.”
Thennes shared that those staying in shelters are currently eligible to receive the vaccine.
However, she described two-shot vaccination efforts — the Pfizer and Moderna options — as being“ very difficult” due to the mobility of unhoused people.
While tenants were originally scheduled to receive the vaccine on March 24, the efforts were postponed due to a shooting that occurred at the First St. Men’s Shelter.
Torrie Kopp Mueller, the Continuum of Care Director of the Homeless Services Consortium of Dane County, expressed her hope that the city will continue to direct resources towards assisting the homeless community and emphasized the importance of providing Dane County residents with more affordable housing.
“There is funding coming in that the city will use to address housing shortages, which is awesome,” Mueller stated. “Affordable housing has to be first and then all those wrap around services are super important ... You have to be off the streets, otherwise it's all about survival.”
Mueller and Thennes both suggested that Madison should have housing units “that will work with people who have made some mistakes.”
“A lot of the folks we serve have blemishes on their rental history,” Mueller explained, which has made it difficult for some individuals to find an affordable apartment in the city.
Mueller stated that despite the hardships brought on by the pandemic, in the past year the Madison community has come together at several points to support the homeless community.
“COVID-19 has been really hard across the board for everyone but there have been some real bright spots that covid brought to us,” he explained. “We had a situation where one shelter had a lot of staff who had to quarantine. Another shelter sent their staff over. That's what I feel most proud of. The relationships that have developed and the way folks are helping out.”
Mueller encouraged local residents to try and view the homeless community with more empathy by simply acknowledging the humanity of homeless people they pass on the street.
“I don’t always give money, but I will always acknowledge the person. ‘Good morning, how are you doing?’ Just say something. That's really important — to be seen.”