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New coalition holds forum on homelessness myths in Madison
The shelter at Brittingham Park in downtown Madison is a gathering place for many homeless persons and a center of policy discussions for addressing the issue.
The shelter at Brittingham Park in downtown Madison is a gathering place for many homeless persons and a center of policy discussions for addressing the issue.
Credit:City of Madison

The Community Forum on Homelessness presented an entry-level tutorial on the hottest subject in Madison at the First United Methodist Church on Thursday evening. Organized by the Dane County Coalition to Fight Homelessness and End Poverty, the forum aimed to address concerns in the Madison community regarding its transient population, explained near east side alder Brenda Konkel.

Citing recent local media coverage -- including Blaska's Blog here on -- and negative community sentiment toward homeless people in light of the Joel Marino and Brittany Zimmermann homicides near Brittingham Park, a haven for many of Madison's homeless, Konkel said the meeting was meant to disseminate information and clarify the public's misconceptions of poverty. "I don't think any of us have the answers," she said, "but we can at least give some of the facts."

Seeking to banish stereotypes, Porchlight Executive Director Steve Schooler looked to debunk seven myths regarding homeless people in town. Among the assumptions he cited were, "The homeless are all dangerous panhandlers," and "Madison is welcoming to the homeless."

Only about 8 percent of Madison's homeless panhandle, said Schooler, and Madison's mistaken reputation as a place to find "Cadillac" services for the homeless is misguided and unfounded.

More concerning to the panelists were the oft-ignored portion of Madison's homeless that consists of working families with children.

About 38 percent of Madison's total homeless population is children, explained Meghan Stratton of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization that works with homeless families through housing stabilization and shelter programs. "The average age of a homeless child in Madison is six years old," said Stratton, noting about 19 percent of families who come to their shelter have at least temporary employment, and that many of their children attend Madison public schools.

Also present at the forum was Operation Welcome Home (OWH), a program that works closely with the most-frequently stereotyped homeless population in Madison -- unemployed African-American men with substance abuse problems. This group seeks to empower these persons by helping them fight substance abuse and find adequate housing and employment.

Formerly homeless individuals assisted by OWH joined the conversation, notably Wesley Morrow, who said he now lives across from Brittingham Park and understands how "crazy and dangerous" that world can be.

When asked whether OWH's concept for a day-labor program might add to substance abuse problems by providing homeless persons with quick cash, impassioned panelists quickly lobbied to quash the notion.

"You created the opportunity to succeed and they blow it -- they messed up. That happens," said Housing Initiatives Director Dean Loumos. "It doesn't happen with all of them. People make the wrong decisions. But is there a mechanism in our programs to address this? Absolutely."

Nichelle Nichols of the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin further emphasized the right and need of all humans "to have housing, to have employment."

"It's that kind of thinking -- it angers me," she said. "We're not talking about Cadillac services, we're talking about Pinto services -- basic services for people to get back on their feet."

Despite a brief diversion into politics -- a verbal tiff between Madison mayoral staffer Joel Plant and Joe Lindstrom of the Homeless Services Consortium about the city's decision to hire 30 more police officers over spending the money on human services -- the consensus at the forum was clear.

Madison's homeless are being unfairly stereotyped, panelists declared, and the solutions for this troubled population lie in providing "housing first," employment second, and above all, an understanding of individual needs.

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