Unacceptable Costs of Being Homeless in Madison

By Tami Miller

The stories I have heard over and over are the same.

There are not enough beds for single women, thus there is a lottery every night to see who sleeps in the 30 beds at the shelter and who leaves crying to sleep outside. What do you think happens to these single women forced to sleep outside with no money and no one to protect them?

Assault and rape happen. I talked to one young woman who has been raped seven times since she has been homeless in Madison, and another who was gang raped more than once. This is shocking and horrible, but it’s truth.

The Occupy Madison encampment returned Saturday night to the site that it occupied last year for several months on the 800 block of East Washington Ave with new development and the Capitol in the background. Occupiers have maintained that the new encampment is a response to the lack of a safe, legal place for the homeless to reside, as shelters fill up and the cold weather arrives. Police visited the site briefly Sunday before agreeing to let the dozen people and their tents stay until Monday when negotiations with the City to provide a safe legal place for people to gather will continue. Photo: Leslie Amsterdam

What about the kids too young for the shelter (under 18) who only get two weeks of foster care? What happens to them when they get kicked out or abused again? Where can they go? Who is offering them a place to stay, and will they expect something creepy in return? This is why we sometimes provide them with tents. It’s safer to sleep hidden in the woods.

What about the families who run out of shelter time (180 days lifetime maximum). How many of the 1,200 homeless kids in Madison’s schools have to do their homework in the car they sleep in with their family?

What happens to the women who run from an abusive relationship? What do they do when they run out of shelter time and have had to leave all of their possessions and their work behind to stay safe? After what we saw what happened in Brookfield last month, we know that a restraining order can’t stop a bullet. Where are they supposed to go?

Unless we begin to demand that Madison has a consistent plan to keep the most vulnerable people in our community safe not only from the elements, but from those who would do them harm, we cannot call ourselves a “Good Neighbor City.”

Temporary shelter is in short supply for these, the most vulnerable, and even that is just a band-aid. We need more low income housing options. We need more section 8 vouchers. We need landlords who will give a person a chance if their rental history has not been perfect in the last three years, because many remain homeless even after they get a job or have enough income because no one will rent to them if they have an eviction on their record.

The Dane County Board of Supervisors has taken some good steps towards building some 80 apartments for these folks soon, but so much more is needed – three or four times that number. In the meantime, how do we protect them? How do they survive until the help comes through?

Rape, assault, child abuse, death from exposure or from lack of protection from an abuser – these are UNACCEPTABLE costs of being homeless in Madison.

So what will you do? What can you do?

It’s a heavy but sincere ask.

YOU can do something:

-         Show up to city and county board meetings and express your support

-         Donate money or time to help the women’s shelter start offering overflow shelter like the men’s shelter does

-         Start doing foster care for at-risk youth

-         Volunteer at Briarpatch

-         Support The Road Home for families

-         Come and do outreach with me and the Friends of the State Street Family

Get involved. You actually CAN make a difference and get this to stop happening to the very poor in Madison.

Thank you.

Love and peace to you all.

[Tami Miller is an advocate for homeless people in Madison and the founder of Friends of the State Street Family which brings food to the street for about 120-150 people on Saturdays, and does "Midnight Runs" bringing sleeping bags and other survival gear to help people survive on the street. The conditions she describes above are long-standing and were documented by Glenn H. Austen in 2003 in this photo blog entitled “A State Street Family Album.”]

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