What does homelessness mean to you? Is it someone begging for food? Someone sleeping outside? Is it someone whose name isn’t on a lease or rental agreement? Does your definition include people who can occasionally scrounge up enough money to sleep in a hotel room but are otherwise sleeping in their cars? Truth is, even in government there isn’t an agreed upon definition between departments.
So the next question is how we do collectively take on an issue while aiming to address several hazy targets orbiting the pendulum of social consciousness? The answer: as best as we can. Madison is fortunate to have several groups approaching the issue from different angles to minimize overlap, ensuring as many people as possible are receiving the resources to dig upwards.
One such effort is Healing House, a JustDane initiative. Healing House is a recuperative shelter for homeless families with a member recovering from a medical procedure, and as Linda Ketcham, executive director for JustDane, explains, “It requires that there are minor children. We know there needs to be a facility for single adults and couples that don’t have kids, but the house isn’t big enough to adequately do both.
“Of the hundred or so individuals, close to 40 families, who have come through Healing House in the last year, 26 of them are newborn infants. Newborns need to be someplace safe. They need to not be out in a shelter with 200 other people while their immune systems are getting up to speed and all that.” Healing House also provides a safe place for mothers who underwent a c-section to recover.
Recognizing the need for these recuperative shelters goes back to 2012, when, Linda says, “in response to the Occupy Madison movement that had an encampment that popped up on the old Don Miller car lot on East Washington, the County Board, knowing our history and that we like to form task forces and study an issue and make recommendations, came to us and asked if we would form a task force and look at why that site had become a de facto encampment for folks experiencing homelessness. And we said we would do that, but we’re not just going to do that so we can tell you where we should shuffle homeless people around our city. We’re going to do that with an eye toward why are people there and what are the gaps in our current services and what are the conditions leading people into homelessness.”
The Beacon, Dane County’s comprehensive day resource center, came as a direct result along with an increased awareness toward recognizing opportunities to aid families and individuals experiencing homelessness. When a man with a cane and aphasia came to a County Board budget hearing after just being released from the hospital from having a stroke, JustDane saw another need to address. When no one wanted to take it on, JustDane waited for monies to become available for them to pursue Healing House, which meant the idea wouldn’t come to fruition until July 2019.
Part of that process was finding the space. “People still don’t want stuff in their backyard, but families are less objectionable. The church that owns the building that Healing House is in said they wanted to continue to use it for mission work—it had previously been a daycare. Over the years, it’s been Hospice’s first office, it was the AIDS Network’s first office, it was a home for single moms who were attending the UW in the 1980s. So it’s been a lot of things and had been sitting empty, so the church came to us and said they wanted it to continue to be used for something. They thought Healing House with a focus on families was a good fit.”
If you’ve ever walked through Madison at night on virtually any evening, odds are you’ve encountered a handful of people experiencing homelessness. But I don’t think I’ve personally ever seen a family I immediately recognized as homeless. Linda tells me homeless families often fly under the radar to avoid being visible. They’re genuinely afraid human services will remove their children from their custody.
I’m sure there are some who might think it’s in a homeless child’s best interest to go to a family with a home or be put up for adoption. The reality is this mentality doesn’t provide a workable solution, instead laying down what can easily be interpreted as a threat, leading to further exacerbation of the issue. To avoid this, JustDane takes the Housing First approach, which follows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: when people have their basic needs met, they can pursue employment with a mindset that isn’t clouded with desperation.
Of course, it’s tough for a child to do schoolwork in the back seat of a car with no wifi. The increase in academic success for a homeless child at Healing House when, say, their mother is going through chemotherapy is immediate. Linda says, “We heard from a number of teachers last school year that there was just such a difference in the kids. … Now they had their own bed and were on a schedule and routine, and they were just doing so much better in school.”
The next step is making certain that the family doesn’t then go back to homelessness when they leave the shelter, which is where Linda’s relationships with other services come in handy. “We have a great partnership with the Road Home, who does the housing case management. We had a family last week and we have a family this week both moving into their own apartments. They’re leaving Healing House into permanent housing and not back onto the street. That’s always the goal.”
In terms of providing housing for everyone, even with all the organizations in Madison, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. There are a growing number of reasons anyone might be experiencing homelessness. But thanks to Healing House and similar organizations, some of those experiencing homelessness are finding an opportunity they didn’t think they’d ever have to get out of a situation they never wanted in the first place.
Kyle Jacobson is a writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.