Born in rural Minnesota, Karla Thennes has been a longtime advocate for homelessness resources. After moving to Madison in 1989 to pursue a graduate degree, she began interning at Porchlight men’s shelter, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing homelessness in Dane County. Following the conclusion of her graduate program, Porchlight offered Thennes the opportunity to run the shelter’s daytime program, and the rest is history.
Thennes has now been with the organization for 32 years, and she is serving her seventh year as executive director since being promoted to the role in 2016. Thennes believes that drawing awareness to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in the Madison area is more important now than ever.
What do you think is the biggest challenge our community faces?
Lack of affordable housing. I could say we don’t have enough mental health treatment, or alcohol and drug treatment, but you can’t stay sober at the men’s shelter. You can’t stay on your meds at the men’s shelter — you need housing. Then, we can provide all of those wraparound services to keep you stable.
The city is developing “affordable housing” every year and has made a big effort in making that dent. It’s just not housing that the homeless can afford.
What do you wish people in our community understood better?
People say, “Why can’t you work? Why can’t you pull yourself up by your bootstraps?”
At our men’s shelter we are serving 250 people a night, and probably 35% of those guests are working. We open at 5 p.m. If someone works a second or third shift job, they’re coming in anywhere from 10 p.m. to 2 in the morning. By that time, they’re literally just checking in, grabbing a cot, and hoping to get a couple hours of sleep before we wake them for breakfast and boot them out the door.
People are working — they still cannot afford to live in this city. But they have ties to this city, and who am I to say you can’t come from somewhere else and live in this great city?
What is one change you would make if you could that would make life better for people in our community?
We run many programs, but two big ones are our men’s shelter and our Safe Haven Program, which is a day center for homeless folks who have mental health issues. The funding we receive for the operating costs of these programs doesn’t cover everything our guests need. Our main focus is to move people into permanent housing, yet the funding we receive cannot cover a security deposit, application fees or even the first month’s rent. I’ve been writing grants and trying to get the word out there that folks can donate specifically for those things, and that would be a huge help.
What in our community gives you hope?
“[Porchlight] always has needs, but sometimes we have a pretty darn urgent need. It could be large coats for winter, or a bus pass for someone to get to their new job, etc. Anytime I put something like that on our website or on our Facebook page, by tomorrow, I have it. What I feel about this wonderful community is, if they know what the need is, they’re very generous. That’s certainly not just to Porchlight, but all the many other nonprofits out there doing amazing work. So that gives me hope, and it gives the people that I work with hope.