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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Overcast
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What to do about the homeless? County exec candidates disagree
According to Porchlight, nearly 3,500 Madison residents experience life on the street at some point each year
According to Porchlight, nearly 3,500 Madison residents experience life on the street at some point each year

Note: An audio slide show accompanies this story.

Greg Hoyte spends countless hours each day working with homeless individuals at the YMCA of Dane County. As the organization's multicultural outreach director, he has observed first-hand the untapped potential and skills many can contribute to local employers. Yet despite their best efforts to find work, Madison's homeless population find the odds are stacked heavily against them.

"You live in the shelter, you can't really find a job," Hoyte says. "The shelters have these specific rules that you need to be in here by certain times and that limits them on the types of jobs they can take."

With the campaign for Dane County executive in full swing, the issue of homelessness has received increased attention in recent weeks as both candidates have identified how it fits within their broader policy objectives.

According to Porchlight Inc., a nonprofit program in Dane County that provides shelter, housing and supportive services to homeless individuals, nearly 3,500 Madison residents experience life on the street at some point each year.

The two candidates are approaching this growing problem from different perspectives. Incumbent Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk claims helping the homeless has been a top priority during her tenure.

"[Homelessness is] probably the single biggest reason why I ran for political office 12 years ago," Falk says. "Moving kids out of poverty is my... single, bottom-line motivating factor for being in office."

Falk says she has enlisted the help of a network of organizations to face the problem.

"It's nonprofit groups and government working together," Falk says. "I can't say enough about how much I value and appreciate the fact that we all work in collaboration together."

Falk asserts Dane County's alcohol abuse problem and its drinking culture generally can be a precursor to poverty.

"A significant number of people are homeless because of underlying alcohol addiction problems," Falk says. "If we can make a difference in the alcohol culture and in the behavior and addiction of some we can prevent homelessness."

But challenger Nancy Mistele believes Falk's alcohol initiatives do not go far enough in solving the problem and that the money Falk has allocated towards her program could be better spent.

"I think she's trying to suggest that her alcohol policy might impact [homelessness]," Mistele says. "But the issue is she's putting that money into middle schools. She's not putting that money into homeless programs. I guess I'd look at that and say, 'What are the mental health services, what are the AODA treatment programs we could offer these folks?'"

Mistele has generated controversy with her stance that the atmosphere in Madison's downtown area in particular accommodates the homeless in a way that compounds the condition.

"If some of the homelessness is basically related to folks that can help themselves but won't help themselves, I'm not sure exactly what the county can do," Mistele says. "There definitely are populations that probably love the fact that they can be out on [State] Street. There aren't a lot of negatives to it. We aren't trying to move them to other parts. We kind of make it easy."

Mistele feels there are already outlets for people in difficult situations to turn to in Dane County and said her focus is on improving existing services.

"We can do everything possible to try and give [the homeless] job training or mental health services to try and lift them up to whatever point they can," Mistele says. "We certainly have a lot of organizations such as the Salvation Army and Grace Episcopal Church that offer rescue shelters. We've got to do what we can to offer the services."

Mistele foresees public safety incidents resulting from Dane County's growing impoverished population, involving the homeless as both perpetrators and victims.

"I think that there may be concerns about the panhandling or the potential for violent crime if folks are looking to try and get money for a drug habit or simply to eat," Mistele says. "But the reality is they are potentially vulnerable populations as well."

Falk and Mistele both stress that a solution to homelessness on the county level must address the causes as well as the effects of the problem.

"They are both important," Falk sa6s. "You can't turn your eyes away from someone who's standing in front of you and has no place to live that day. [But] if you just spend money on those standing in front of you that day homeless and not working on the underlying causes, then you also aren't being smart and effective with dollars."

Mistele echoes Falk's sentiment.

"It has to be a two-pronged approach," Mistele says. "You can't say 'we're only going to be preventative' because then, of course, you've got all these people on the street today that won't have any services delivered and you can't say just simply 'let's address the people that are on the street today,' because then you won't stop any more from showing up."

Even so, Mistele says she remains skeptical that the county's approach under Falk's leadership is doing enough to find and eliminate the source of the problem.

"When we've got all the shelters that will provide meals and a place to maybe hang out during the day, we really do have to ask ourselves if we're doing anything to address the root causes," Mistele says.

According to Kelli Malueg, a Porchlight counselor, the program hosted 1,270 clients at the Grace Episcopal drop-in center and other men's shelters across Dane County during 2008. The organization also hosted 62 clients at the Safe Haven shelter over the course of the year, providing meals, showers and laundry services to visitors.

"Once a person moves in, the ultimate goal is to help them attain income and find appropriate housing and sometimes that takes awhile," Malueg says.

Falk says finding new ways to address the homelessness issue has served as a "motivating factor" to serve another term in office. She says her administration has allocated money towards programs in everything from job creation to community development.

"Not one penny is mandated by the state or federal government," Falk says. "[The programs] are all us locally here viewing this as a priority and putting our dollars where our mouths are."

While Falk has approached the issue with a variety of programs, Hoyte believes the county needs to create and implement a more specific plan.

"Right now they have a place for the homeless to go in and, once you get shelter, then that's it and you're back out onto the streets and it's repetitive over and over and over again," Hoyte says. "There needs to be a program…that says if you are a homeless person and want to get out of the situation, we are here to help you."

Still, Malueg believes without the resources to prevent people from becoming homeless, Porchlight is reacting as best it can.

"Given the fact we can't provide everything that would be ideal to prevent homelessness, we are definitely working in the moment," Malueg says. "We definitely have to help the people that are out there."

Despite differences in the ways Falk and Mistele plan to address homelessness, Hoyte agrees with both Dane County executive candidates that the important thing is to prevent more people from falling into such unfortunate circumstances.

"Not one of them ever thought they would be homeless," Hoyte says. "Not one of them thought that."

Note: This story is the result of a partnership between Isthmus and UW-Madison journalism professor Sue Robinson's in-depth reporting class. This article and its accompanying audio slide show were produced by Jake Harris, Andy Koritz and Joe Trovato.

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