As winter looms, homeless flock to shelters, day centers

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SA Kindstrom

Photo by S. A. Kindstrom. Creative Common license.

Recent plummeting temperatures and climbing winds have left Dane County residents shivering and getting ready for winter — though some of our neighbors have a bit more preparation to do. 

Megale Etaylor, who has been homeless in Madison for the past five months, is one of approximately 600 unsheltered people in the city preparing for a Wisconsin winter. Like many others experiencing homelessness, Etaylor primarily lives in a tent, which proves unsustainable as temperatures drop, despite strategic layering of clothing and the use of two sleeping bags. 

“I'm having second thoughts about that because it's too cold. I need to be in the shelter,” said Etaylor. “I can only withstand so much.”

However, when folks like Etaylor leave their tents to sleep in a shelter on particularly bitter nights, there are additional risks at play. 

“Other homeless people steal from the homeless...and everything was stolen from me,” Etaylor said. “Even my book that I wrote, and it’s demoralizing. I do as well as I can possibly do.” 

Etaylor has recently come across an exciting new employment opportunity, but this also complicates his sleeping situation further. He must pick between securing his belongings or sleeping in a shelter so as to get adequate rest for work. 

While Etaylor is now ready to settle down and leave homelessness behind, Porchlight case manager Glenn Ruiz says not all people are. Mental illness and drug addiction are among the factors contributing to long-term homelessness — creating what Ruiz calls “a revolving door” with law enforcement and intervention services. 

Concern over our homeless population’s well-being during the colder months has been mounting in recent years, with the death of six individuals due to the cold in January 2018 alone. Greater visibility of our unsheltered neighbors is also a component, particularly in the downtown region near State Street and the Capitol. 

Though resources like the County-owned day shelter The Beacon, service agency Briarpatch, and the grassroots group Friends of State Street aim to mitigate the risk of being without shelter during the winter, not all folks’ needs can be met. 

Since shelter and resource usage is heavily dependent on the weather — often doubling in winter — these organizations must prepare for the ebbs and flows, in addition to conducting outreach to ensure the unsheltered population is aware of what is available.

Thus, organizations like Porchlight — a men’s shelter with overnight locations at Grace Episcopal Church, St. John’s Lutheran Church,  and First United Methodist Church — are working tirelessly to help our homeless out. With a combination of street outreach and an open-door policy, Porchlight prides themselves on finding “solutions to homelessness,” rather than simply offering a meal and a bed to sleep in. 

This comprehensive approach takes form through partnerships with other organizations, such as The Beacon, to help unsheltered folks find housing, employment, healthcare, and more. 

The Dane County Department of Health and Human Services also plays a role in these partnerships to mitigate the threats of being exposed due to homelessness in our frigid winters. 

“The county is continuing its commitment to The Beacon day resource center, and that is a place that's really unique,” said Casey Becker, the DHHS’s Communications and Homeless Services Manager. “It's a place where, if a person is unsheltered, they can access a shower. They can access meals, they serve lunch there every day. It's open 365 days a year, including weekends and holidays. During the day, people can have their laundry done there.

“In addition, on the second floor, there are a number of partners who represent agencies that can help folks with whatever their needs may be related to housing. So there's housing providers who are there, employment and training providers there,” said Becker. “There are connections to health insurance benefits, and food benefits for people who need help paying for food."

There are also overnight shelters available for women, youth, and families, particularly The Salvation Army and Briarpatch Youth Services. A comprehensive list of resources — shelters, day centers, and other social services — can be found on Dane County’s Department of Health and Human Services’ website

Etaylor has expressed his own gratitude for The Beacon and Porchlight, attributing these services and Ruiz’s persistence for getting him back on track. 

“I’m a father, I have kids, and it is time to change my situation, even in this weather,” said Etaylor. “I'm really doing my best to make ends meet in the best way I know how to. I can’t beat myself up over the mistakes that I have made, the mishaps that have been created. I just gotta move forward.”

While no drastic changes have been made to cold-month policies and resources for unsheltered folks since last winter, the homeless population may be in consensus of what they need.

“[We need] a couple more people like Glenn,” said Carri Konkola, who has been a client of Ruiz’s for about a year. “Essentially, everybody, when they come in, could have a counselor who sort of keeps pushing, and Glenn is exceptionally forward.”

Ruiz recognizes this, and calls for greater funding to increase the reach and scope of case-by-case resources such as Porchlight. Yet, there is only so much he and his colleagues can do — a bigger push is needed from the higher-ups. 

“It's really kind of in the spotlight now, the issue of homelessness in Madison,” said Ruiz. “It's on the desk of the mayor, it's on the desk of the governor, it's on the desk of all the legislators right now.”

Luckily, as proven by his actions last week, Governor Tony Evers is pushing. Evers requested that the Senate Budget Committee meet, despite the conclusion of the floor period until January 14, to “approve more than $3 million in annual funding for several programs meant to curb homelessness,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal

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