Tami Miller ferries resources to the homeless on State Street and in the hidden corners of the city

When Tami Miller walked into the Grace Episcopal Church’s men’s shelter, it seemed as though everybody knew her name.

“Hi Tami!” several  men exclaimed as she entered the shelter with a plastic bag filled with Reese's peanut butter cups and snickers bars, offering a piece to every man standing in the shelter’s hallway along with a hug, a smile, and a “how are you?”

“They really are like members of my family,” Miller said. “I know them by name; I know what’s going on with them; I know their life stories.”

Once a week, Miller packs her navy blue pickup truck with purchased and donated tents, blankets, razors, hand warmers, and Pringles -- a popular treat, she said -- and delivers the items to shelters and homeless camp sites throughout Madison to offer the city’s homeless community practical help.

But most do not realize how far Miller has to travel to reach most members of Madison’s homeless community. They establish campsites in hidden locations far from downtown to avoid being spotted by the city’s residents, who Miller said often report homeless individuals to police, forcing them to relocate.

“You would be surprised,” Miller said. “[Homeless] people are so close to residential areas, but they aren’t there to hurt anyone. They are just trying to survive.”

 Miller drives on a weekly basis to these hidden campsites dispersed throughout the city, located in the woods next to roaring freeways, under bridges, and behind parking lots. She delivers goods to the 400 people, she said, who sleep outside in Madison every night.

“My mission is to give practical help and hope to people who are homeless in Madison and Dane County, to show them they are loved and cared about and that they matter,” Miller said.

Starting up

When Miller volunteered in August 2011 at St. Mary’s hospital in the emergency room, a homeless woman entered the premises and gave Miller what she called the “spiritual twist, kick to the head” she needed to realize that Madison has a homeless problem.

The woman, who was mentally ill and agitated, entered the hospital screaming, crying, and thrashing. Miller went to calm her down, and said her heart broke over the visible dirt around the woman’s neck and the tearstains on the woman’s face and pillows.

“It was one of those moments,” Miller said. “I didn’t even know there was a homeless problem in Madison before that. I’m embarrassed to say it, but it’s true.”

Shortly after that, Miller, a single mom, and her two daughters began feeding people who looked hungry along State Street every week. She and other volunteers created a Facebook page, called “Feeding the State Street Family,” which garnered citywide support and donations for the cause.

Today, Miller runs the initiative through Facebook, accepting donations from random contributors as well as through the Center of Community Stewardship nonprofit. “Feed the State Street Family” is one of the Stewardship’s projects.

Miller and other volunteers often deliver the donated goods to the homeless directly, dropping off practical items at warming shelters as well as at various campsites throughout the city. She also hosts outreach events, including what she called “Midnight Runs,” which take place once a week from April to early November.

In these “massive survival gear drops,” members of the homeless community gather to collect donated practical items they need to survive, including sleeping bags, clothing, new underwear, and socks.

“Anything we can get our hands on, we bring,” Miller said.

Advocacy for the city’s hidden homeless

On March 22, Miller packed her truck with goods as soon as she left work, as she does most Friday evenings. She drove approximately 20 minutes away from Capitol Square and parked in an empty parking lot, grabbed an armful of supplies, and discreetly walked into a wooded area adjacent to a Madison freeway.

Miller walked through the woods, dodging branches and nearly slipping multiple times on the thick layer of ice beneath her feet. She shouted the names of the individuals who reside in the campsite located in the middle of these woods, which is walking distance from where the individuals wake up at 5 a.m. daily to get work.

“Hey guys, it is Tami!” she shouted. “Anyone need anything?”

Miller is no stranger to walking through the woods or to other obscure locations to reach members of the city’s homeless community. These hidden campsites are not to avoid police, but rather to hide from residents, who may call with a complaint and have the campers relocated upon spotting their outdoor establishments.

Homeless people sleep outside to wake up at 5 a.m. daily and walk to the location where they have a chance to work and get paid. There are no buses from the downtown shelters to the east side site -- undisclosed to protect the privacy of the campers -- where individuals seek undocumented work.

“We are asking people to pull themselves up by their boot straps and work their way out of their situation,” Miller said. “Well, they have to go sleep under a bridge or a couple of bushes to be able to work.”

Miller said some individuals sleep outside because the number of days allotted at the city’s homeless and warming shelters expires at 60 days per person.

Miller met with Dane County Executive Joe Parisi about defining a legal place for the homeless community to reside. Currently, Miller said people can be fined for living outside, and police sometimes confiscate their belongings.

“If [local officials] cannot build houses immediately, people should have simple life-sustaining practices be legal,” Miller said. “They have to be able to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, and clean themselves somewhere.”

In addition to meeting with local officials, Miller said volunteers who fight for homeless community initiatives sit on city committees as well as testify on the county board and at city council meetings.

Miller and other volunteers participate in protests to advocate for homeless issues, such as the March 7 rally organized by the Occupy Madison movement.

“There are so many obstacles we set up for folks who are homeless in the city,” Miller said. “I don’t know what the answers are but I just wish the people who had authority and power would see what I see. And I see people who are struggling and really trying but can’t seem to catch a break.”