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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Standing up for the homeless
Advocate's unusual crusade draws criticism, praise
on
Operation
Welcome Home members (as they identified themselves), from left: May, Z! and
Jew Town, with homeless advocate Kristen Petroshius.
Operation Welcome Home members (as they identified themselves), from left: May, Z! and Jew Town, with homeless advocate Kristen Petroshius.
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Kristen Petroshius understands the city of Madison has to do something to deal with the problems posed by homeless people who gather in places like Brittingam Park. She just doesn't like what it's trying to do.

"We aren't saying that there aren't issues at Brittingham Park, because there are," says Petroshius, a 26-year-old employee at a downtown nonprofit agency. "But we need to get creative in how we deal with them. Throwing people in jail is not the answer. Pushing people out of anywhere is not the answer. We need to look at the root causes."

Last fall, Petroshius launched Operation Welcome Home, a loose-knit band of about a dozen homeless people and their advocates. The group has gotten a small grant from Wisconsin Community Fund for operational costs. It's penned a mission statement (see this story at TheDailyPage.com) and meets regularly to discuss strategy. The message: Homeless people have rights, too.

"They have a right to public spaces," says Petroshius, who is critical of moves to increase police presence at the park and train cameras on its shelter. The homeless "can't go to a coffee shop or a bar, because you need to spend money to be there. The park is one of the few places where people can be with their friends, which can be an essential part of getting through the day."

Ald. Brenda Konkel, the head of the local Tenant Resource Center, agrees the city's approach leaves much to be desired.

"Instead of trying to punish the homeless, why aren't we trying to find solutions?" she asks. "I'm pretty frustrated because during the budget last year we had several solutions written in to get more resources for homelessness, and none passed. I'm very concerned about some of the attitudes we have about homeless people."

Operation Welcome Home drew media attention last month after four homeless residents were evicted from a house Petroshius had rented for them in the town of Madison. But her account of that incident has been challenged, and city leaders and homeless service providers question whether such efforts might do more harm than good.

"There is a concern that this group isn't as well versed on the issues [and] doesn't have long experience working with these populations," says Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who met with members of Operation Welcome Home in his office last fall. (Says Petroshius, "It was a real short meeting, and what came of it was that we'd meet again.")

Cieslewicz says the city is taking appropriate steps to deal with homelessness: "I've asked my staff to work with the neighbors and advocates and all the relevant city and county agencies to put together a comprehensive set of proposals." And he'd like to see Brittingham Park used more for league sports and other "positive activities."

Police have spent considerable time responding to complaints about illegal and intimidating behavior at the park, which became a refuge for transients after the city banned alcohol in nearby Law Park. Last April, a homeless man died at the park of natural causes.

Some neighbors have asked the city to step up efforts to get rid of the homeless. Petroshius, who moved to Madison from Waukegan, Ill., in 2001, was appalled by this reaction. She began visiting the park last summer and made friends with those living there. Operation Welcome Home grew out of these contacts.

As temperatures dropped, Petroshius and others pooled their money and rented a $1,200-a-month house in the town of Madison, which became, in essence, a wet shelter.

"If you've been drinking during the day, you can't go in to the shelter drunk," she says. "So a lot of the people we were talking to were people the shelters didn't work for. That's one of the biggest barriers for people who are alcoholic."

But soon after the new tenants moved in, town of Madison police alerted the building inspector, who told the landlord that the housing situation violated town zoning codes. After each resident failed a credit check, they were evicted.

Petroshius is quick to allege bias: "If there was a group of white college people hanging out, I doubt that he would've been so concerned."

Scott Gregory, the chief of police in the town of Madison, denies that the residents' race or status as (formerly) homeless persons was a factor.

"I give Kristen credit for what she wants to do. I really do," says Gregory. "[But] there are certain laws that need to be followed to create a homeless shelter in the middle of a residential neighborhood. She just needs to follow the steps."

Some homeless service providers have also expressed discomfort about efforts to provide housing à la carte. In response to such criticism, Petroshius gets defensive.

"We can't learn in social work school how to change all of the problems in the world," says Petroshius, who holds degrees in sociology and women's studies from the UW-Madison. "That comes from people with good minds and good hearts being real with each other."

Konkel is impressed with Petroshius' initiative.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," she says. "I don't see the city or the county providing the services that are needed. If this group is going to get six people a place to live, that's six less homeless people on the street."

Operation Welcome Home now rents a new three-bedroom house on Madison's south side. Petroshius says the six residents have rules they must follow, but won't disclose them. She says she's still paying rent on the previous house, as well as this one. Residents with jobs pay a percentage of their income. Others give what they can. The difference is paid by Petroshius and private donations.

Cieslewicz says he will continue working with service providers and advocates, including Operation Welcome Home.

"We understand there will be a variety of nonprofit groups that may want to work with different populations, so we're not excluding anybody," he says. That said, he urges Operation Welcome Home to "work with the broader homeless services in our community."

But Petroshius believes the approaches taken by others haven't worked, so it's time to go in a different direction.

"To me, the work is about deep love, building human relationships and doing what needs to be done," she says. "I'm not bound by, 'Well, this won't work, because this is the way you're supposed to do it.' It's not to knock anyone's work, but there are needs that aren't being met."

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