‘It’s really that simple’: A Madison nonprofit’s mission to serve the homeless

Imagine this: you’re a parent. And like most parents, you’re constantly worrying about your kids. Only, your worries are more daunting than most, and they keep you up at night—at least, you think they do. After all, it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep in the front seat of your family’s Toyota Camry, especially with the kids in the back. So, you lay there, awake, trying to find a solution to your family’s problems.

Your eight-year-old son has a brain tumor. The doctors found it two months ago.  He has yet to have the required surgery to remove the tumor, and it has continued to grow. But the backseat of a car is no place for someone to recuperate from an operation, and you have nowhere else to to take him. 

Situations like this are a reality Madison residents face far more often than most people would expect, according to Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison Area Urban Ministry (MUM). MUM is a nonprofit organization that has worked toward social change for families impacted by the criminal justice system, among other things, in the greater Dane County area since 1971, and most recently has turned its attention to homelessness. 


The Healing House will provide a respite for the homeless who need medical care after leaving the hospital. (Andrew Bahl/Madison Commons)The Healing House will provide a respite for the homeless who need medical care after leaving the hospital. (Andrew Bahl/Madison Commons)


“One of the things that we’ve done over that time, historically, has been to serve as an incubator and a fiscal agent for new ideas or projects,” Ketchamn said. “We have over our 40-some year history created and spun-off a number of nonprofits in the community.”

Currently, the organization is in the midst of a $1 million capital campaign to fund the opening of their latest project: a medical respite. Healing House, as the eight-bed facility will be known, will serve homeless families who have a parent or child in need of recuperative care, Ketcham explained. It will be the first facility of its kind in the state.

It will be located at 303 Lathrop St., and offer 24/7 medical assistance to members of homeless families who have had a medical procedure and were discharged from a hospital. Ketcham also explained Healing House will supply three meals a day, child care assistance and work with families to find them permanent housing.

“We will have case management services,” she said. “We’ll be working with individuals or families, if they’re not already connected with one of the housing agencies, to try and get them into permanent or transitional housing.”

These case management services are an effort to end the cycle of homelessness that is present in Dane County, according to MUM’s website. A cycle that can have serious and long-term health effects, Matt Julian, a social worker with Helping Educate and Link The Homeless (HEALTH), explained.

He cited diabetes, blood pressure and cardiac issues and the simple lack of rest as common health effects of homelessness in the Madison area. Julian also stated homelessness can have serious effects on an individual’s mental health, and that substance abuse is prevalent among homeless individuals. He stressed that not all individuals have these experiences, though. 

These are all conditions that may require an individual to undergo a medical procedure. However, there is presently nowhere in the Madison area, or state of Wisconsin, for homeless individuals or families to go to receive 24/7 medical care after being discharged from the hospital, according to Ketcham. 

There are currently 64 medical respites in the United States; Healing House will be the first in Wisconsin, Ketcham noted. She indicated cost as the reason other shelters have not moved to become respites in the past.

“None of the housing or shelter agencies in Dane County wanted to take this on. That was our first ask: ‘Are you interested in doing this?’ They all said no,” Ketcham explained. “We said ‘OK,’ then [we started] looking into how we might put this together.” 

Other Dane County services provide overnight medical assistance to individuals or families who come into their shelters, but not during the day, according to Karla Thennes, Porchlight’s executive director. She further explained that access to these services through Porchlight, an organization that strives to decrease the homeless population in Madison, is often based on availability, and that individuals are required to file paperwork ahead of time in order to reserve a spot.

“We have what we call a medical room,” Thennes said. “The guest would need to, ahead of time, have a doctor fill out a form in order to be in that room.”

And the demand for the services of Porchlight, and similar organizations in the Madison area, remains high. Porchlight served over 5,000 people across their five major services, as well as smaller ones, in 2016, according to Thennes. She went on to explain that certain Porchlight services work with families or individuals to prevent homelessness, affirming that Porchlight does not solely work with already homeless persons.  

Healing House will look to further serve homeless families in the Madison area. Ketcham stated that the goal of the respite is to avoid the time during the day in which families or individuals would be forced onto the streets during recuperation, stating that providing these services is the right thing to do. 

“It’s the ethical and moral thing to do for a community,” Ketcham said. “To us, in some ways, it’s really that simple.”

She reported that there is no current timetable for the opening of Healing House, but remains “cautiously optimistic” that renovations on the site will begin this year as MUM is making significant progress toward reaching their $1 million goal.