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Bleak house: An inside look at the Porchlight homeless shelter at Grace Episcopal Church
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Credit:Christopher Guess

In 2007, when Donna Asif began volunteering at Madison's emergency shelter for men at Grace Episcopal Church, she started hearing stories about a man named Larry.

Larry had been banned from the shelter - in downtown Madison on Capitol Square - because he had lice and scabies. Told he couldn't come back until he got a doctor's note saying he was free of the vermin, he simply stayed on the streets, often sleeping just around the corner on the church's steps. Asif eventually tracked him down.

"He slept on the streets for two years until I came across him," says Asif, who is active with the Madison Homeless Initiative and has advocated on homeless issues for years. "He was waiting to die. He had no idea what to do."

But Larry's problems were not unmanageable, Asif found. He just needed someone to listen to him and help him. She got Larry medical care, cleaned him up, gave him clothes and blankets. She helped him get into transitional housing and then, in August 2009, an apartment, where he lives today.

Larry, who's in his mid-50s, calls Asif a "godsend." Asif regrets that he never found help at the shelter. "He could have been taken off the streets two years earlier," she says.

No one expects a homeless shelter to be a cheery or an uplifting place. But many homeless people and their allies say the shelter at Grace Episcopal, run by Porchlight Inc., is unacceptably bleak. It's a main focus of efforts to alter how Madison treats its homeless.

"Is it better than nothing? Yes," Asif says. "So there are many guys very appreciative for what they get. It will keep you alive, but it may also take away your dignity and break your spirit. It's not a place of rest or hope, but of insult and injury. And it doesn't have to be that way."

The Rev. Jonathan Grieser, rector of Grace Episcopal Church, does not criticize Porchlight, but says he has also heard complaints and is concerned.

"It's offensive to me, and it should be offensive to everybody in the city, that guys have to stand in line for two hours in the cold before getting into the shelter," he says. "When we baptize people into the church, we promise to respect the dignity of every human person. And that's my bottom line."

Porchlight's executive director, Steve Schooler, acknowledges there are problems with the shelter, which he's working to address. "We really do care for the people we serve here," he says. "We try to do the best we can."

The question for Madison: Is that good enough?

I'd been hearing stories for months from homeless people and their friends about how awful the drop-in shelter is. Among the common complaints: It's filthy; you catch lice and crabs there; you have to wait in line for hours; the staff is mean; fights and theft are common. Some report mistreatment, particularly from the shelter's night manager, Jim Willis. They say people are kicked out for seemingly random reasons.

I loathe those first-person stories by journalists who pretend that by sleeping in a homeless shelter for a night, they know what it's like to be homeless. But in this case, there was no other way to see what the place is like. So one night in late January, I spent a night at Grace.

In the winter, the shelter opens at 5 p.m., but guests are not allowed on church property until 15 minutes prior. The homeless, hoping to secure a choice bunk, begin lining up on West Washington Avenue or around the corner on North Fairchild Street as early as 3:30.

At 4:45, a shelter worker comes out and lets the men onto the property, but our wait isn't over: The line merely shifts to an alley alongside the church.

It's a long time to wait. One former homeless man named Raheem - he doesn't want his last name used because he recently started a business - says he used to line up early on the street. He stopped doing this because of the chaos that often ensued when the men were allowed to line up in the alley, and began jockeying for position. Some folks came late and cut to the front of the line.

"It's a bad scene," says Raheem, a member of the homeless activist group Operation Welcome Home. "There's no honor as far as who got there first or second, elderly or disabled."

When I stay, the line is relatively orderly. As we wait in the cold, members from Grace Baptist Church stop by with thermoses of coffee and invite everyone to that church's evening service.

A guy in front of me, rolling a cigarette, complains about a sore tooth. "I've got 11 teeth left. One of them is hurting real bad," he says. "I know it's going to abscess."

Porchlight Inc., which has operated the men's emergency shelter at Grace Episcopal since the mid-1980s, advertises its mission as "A helping hand, not a handout." It also operates two overflow shelters at St. John's Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church. The group says 3,500 Madison-area residents are homeless at some point each year, and the largest portion of them are adult men.

Some men can also find emergency shelter at Port St. Vincent de Paul on Madison's near east side, though that facility is generally for longer stays. The Salvation Army offers women and children emergency shelter.

According to Porchlight, more than a third of the people in America are at risk of being homeless because their rent is more than 30% of their income. With fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Dane County at $772, a person needs to make at least $14.46 an hour in order to spend only 30% of his or her income on rent.

"For many in Madison, this rate is simply out of reach," says Porchlight's annual report. "Personal difficulties, such as job loss, divorce, or mental and physical disabilities, increase vulnerability to homelessness."

The shelters are just one part of Porchlight's programs, which also include job training, supportive and transitional housing programs and eviction prevention. The emergency shelter at Grace, which provided beds to 1,273 different men last year, cost $310,000 of the group's more than $3 million budget to run. Those men spent a total 31,889 nights at the shelter in 2009 (the men are limited to 60 days a year at the shelter, with exceptions for extremely cold weather).

Porchlight gets funding for the shelter mainly from Dane County, the state and private donations. According to Schooler, shelter funding from the state has dropped by $33,000 since 2001. As a result, the organization has had to increasingly rely on private donations to run the shelter.

The three shelters together can house about 150 people, but, Schooler boasts, "We've never turned anyone away because of capacity. If it's a cold night, we let everybody in. I'm very proud of that. Though the building inspector doesn't want to hear that."

When you stay at the shelter, you need to get used to waiting in line: to get in, to get a bunk, to get food. You wait for the three nightly smoke breaks, and you wait for your turn at the laundry machine.

Eventually the line moves inside the church building off West Washington Avenue, but we continue to wait, for another 20 minutes or so, while each man checks in. The first 30 people in line each night are guaranteed a bed; others are sent to the overflow shelters, both just blocks away.

Men making their first stay at the shelter are given a form and sent to the night manager for intake. Tonight it's a guy named Preston, who leads me into an office by the kitchen and sits down at his desk. He asks me how long I've been homeless, how much money I make, where I last lived, how long I expect to stay there. I try not to lie, saying I just need a place to stay, and haven't any money.

Asif faults the intake process as perfunctory and lacking compassion.

"Success is measured by how many beds are served, meals served," she says. "The intake form is a series of questions based on what [the shelter] needs in order to get more funding. Nobody asks you how are you? What can we do?"

After intake, no one on the staff talks to me again.

Josh Thurber, another activist with Operation Welcome Home, suggests this is typical. He stayed at the shelter for a while after walking to Madison from Black River Falls and ending up homeless. "It's really dark and gloomy," he relates. "The atmosphere is cliquish, especially among the staff. They don't talk to you."

Thurber was banned from the shelter about a month ago, when he came in drunk, got in a fight and was arrested. He was too drunk to remember any of it. "I've been sober for three weeks and they still won't let me back."

Raheem complains about the shelter's "anything goes" atmosphere: "There's no order. The guys do what they want in there. They could kill someone, and the staff wouldn't know about it until they found the body." He says he's stayed at much larger shelters in Chicago and Indianapolis that dealt with more people and more problems, but were cleaner and more orderly.

"They have rules, but they don't enforce them," he says of the Madison shelter. "You don't enforce order by being disorderly. You don't enforce the law by breaking it."

Most of the shelter is in one large room in the church basement, containing about 20 bunk beds. Each bunk has a mattress encased in vinyl.

It's a drab place. Cinderblock walls support a prefab concrete ceiling lined with fluorescent lights. The linoleum floor is scuffed and marked, but appears clean. There's a faint scent of disinfectant. Off to one side are several tables where people can eat. The kitchen and office are just beyond. There's a bathroom down the hall, with a locker-room-style shower, two urinals and two toilet stalls.

Beds are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Many guys don't bother with sheets or blankets, but stay curled up in their coats. Many sleep next to their bags, to avoid theft. I grab a wool blanket and climb into a top bunk. Several people have told me that the linens aren't cleaned every day. As Raheem put it, "People could have crabs and you catch them."

Beth Cleary, public health sanitarian with the Madison-Dane County Health Department, says homeless shelters are not regulated by the state, like hotels or restaurants. Her office would typically only get involved "if there was an infestation or public health nuisance."

Schooler has heard complaints about lice and crabs, but there's never been an outbreak that he's aware of. He says the blankets and sheets are cleaned three times a week, less frequently at the overflow shelters. The bathroom and the shelter are cleaned daily.

"It's a pretty tight ship," says Brad Hinkfuss, who manages the shelters for Porchlight. "Everything is tile or vinyl, so there's no place for [vermin] to hide."

As for banning Larry from the shelter, Schooler says Porchlight didn't have a choice. "Someone comes in with scabies, that's highly contagious," he says. "We don't have the resources to deal with that."

Before I came to the shelter, I'd asked Raheem for advice. "The quieter you are, the safer you are," he told me. "When you don't run your mouth, they don't know how to deal with you. They'll just watch you."

The men at Grace form little groups and watch out for each other, guarding friends' bags. A guy in the bunk next to me finds out I used to live in his hometown of Knoxville and takes to calling me "Tennessee."

The guy in the bunk below me chides me for wearing my shoes on the bed. I tell him I heard there's a lot of theft here, and he shows me how to put my shoes underneath my mattress, so I'll feel it if someone tries taking them.

About 7:30, people begin lining up for dinner. It's a long wait tonight. Dinner, normally served about 8, isn't ready until 8:20, when the manager finally opens the kitchen door and barks out, "First five!" Five men file in, then the manager yells, "Next five!"

Once in the kitchen, you must first take a squirt of hand sanitizer from a big bottle on a table before grabbing a tray and plastic utensils. Tonight's offerings are hotdogs, baked beans, fruit cocktail, cake and milk.

"Hotdogs aren't gourmet unless you got onions," jokes one of the servers behind the counter. The shelter doesn't provide the meals. Volunteer groups, mostly churches and service organizations, take turns serving food each night. The kitchen isn't licensed, so the food is prepared off-site and reheated at the shelter.

Many people take their food to their bunks or into the TV room, where there are additional tables. We eat mostly in silence, shoveling food into our mouths. The hotdogs and baked beans are cold.

"Twenty minutes late and they can't even warm it up?" grouses the guy across from me. "Something seems wrong with that. Maybe it was 20 minutes late because they wanted to serve it cold."

Many of the complaints about Grace have to do with its manager, Jim Willis. People say he picks favorites and harasses those he doesn't like. Witnesses report seeing Willis yelling, cursing and threatening.

"People get banned for little to no good reason," Asif says. "It is often those with serious mental illness who are being thrown onto our streets with no ability to help themselves."

Larry, who seems to be a mild-mannered guy, lived in fear of Jim when he was homeless. "I tried to stay out of his way," he says. "They could throw me out at any time."

Schooler and Hinkfuss think Willis is doing a good job, but admit there's room for improvement. They say Willis is usually the one who kicks people out for breaking the rules, making him "the heavy."

"Relationships build up between the staff and the guests where each is trying to push each other's buttons," Schooler says. "So from time to time, staff will respond in ways that are personal and not professional. That does happen." He tells of how Willis volunteered, on a brutally cold day three years ago, to keep the shelter open all day, without overtime, so the guys could stay out of the cold.

Hinkfuss agrees some complaints against Willis are legitimate, but adds, "If someone comes up yelling or threatening you, drunk, it's difficult to react with a calm demeanor. Jim takes a lot of that. My impression is he gives some of it back, too."

In an email, Willis responds to criticism, saying, "I do my best to make the shelter as safe as possible and give [guests] a place to be comfortable as possible, where a guest can take a deep breath and be able to think of a plan to get out of this situation."

It's against the rules to be drunk at the shelter, but the shelter often makes exceptions, especially in winter, because it doesn't want anyone to freeze to death. Last year, Porchlight began giving Breathalyzer tests to suspected drunks, with .08 blood alcohol content being the cutoff for admission. The Breathalyzer they got wasn't working, and was replaced, but Schooler says the shelter hasn't wanted to start testing again in the winter.

Grace recently installed video cameras in parts of the shelter (excluding the bathroom and sleeping area) to make the facility more secure. If there's an incident or complaint, the tapes can be reviewed.

Nathaniel Godfrey, an activist with Operation Welcome Home, says there's an unneeded tough-love approach among agencies dealing with homelessness, a sense that "you don't want to make it too comfortable for people" or they'll continue being homeless.

Willis reflects this approach in his email, saying, "I don't talk to grown men like kids. I don't sugarcoat anything. Life is hard. I talk to the guests like they're family. I try to be as real as possible, and if you break the rules then you must deal with the consequences. I'm hard because I know how difficult it is to rise up from homelessness, but I'm also fair."

Godfrey has been researching shelter standards in other cities in collaboration with People's Vision for Affordable Housing, which is developing proposals to present to the Common Council. Godfrey would like to see ordinances set standards for shelters, along with some enforcement mechanisms.

"One obvious and immediate one is hygiene and health," Godfrey says. "And there's a need for a third-party grievance system."

Godfrey also thinks there needs to be a shelter that's accessible 24 hours, because many times the only jobs the homeless can get are second or third shift. "Some of those people don't have anywhere to sleep," he says. "The shelter needs to be run in a way that promotes functionality, so a person could work themselves out of it."

Hinkfuss counters that the shelter's limitations are tied to its budget. "There's a notion that this is somehow a public service, but it's not," he says. "We're a nonprofit. It's not an inalienable right to stay here."

When the Rev. Grieser was studying for the ministry 20 years ago, he worked with the homeless in Boston. And while he says "my career path took a different direction," the chance to work again with the homeless is one of the reasons he took the job at Grace last August.

He praises Porchlight as "a wonderful organization. It does great work in the community." He thinks some of the complaints he's heard about the shelter are valid, others not. The biggest problem, he believes, is that the building itself is "not designed for that, and it's not big enough to support the number of guys who are there."

Still, the shelter is an integral part of the church's mission. "The church is in the business of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. That's our job," he says. "Even if we're just the landlord, we need to see that people are treated with dignity."

And that includes not just the guests, but the staff, he says. "The way it's set up is dehumanizing for both."

After dinner, there's not much to do. There's a TV in the next room, but most guys lie on their bunks, talking, reading or scribbling in notebooks. One guy watches a movie on a laptop. Another chats on his cell phone.

The lights are turned off at 9:30, but the chatter continues for a few hours. Lights from the office and a Coke machine, which both stay on all night, illuminate the room enough to see, even read, if you're close enough.

Some people use this time to shower. A cacophony of snoring and coughing begins to take hold. One guy, who looks to be in his late 20s, mock-directs the room noises from his top bunk.

One guy chatting on his cell phone tells someone on the other end, "I'd make you my beneficiary. At least I know you'll put me away right."

Fifteen minutes later, a soda can cracks open, followed by chugging. A man from another cot admonishes, "You take motherfucking Vicodin, OxyContin like candy. How many of those bitches did you take, five or six? If you don't wake up in the morning, I won't bother going to staff, I'll know what's wrong."

Around 4 a.m., some men get dressed and leave. Men from the other shelters, and some who have slept on the streets, begin trickling in, waiting for breakfast, which is served around 5:30. Today it is cold cereal, coffee, toast and an apple. The men must be out of the shelter by 8 a.m.

And, beginning at about 3:30 that afternoon, many of them will be back.

Homeless facts & figures

  • Total number of homeless individuals sheltered in Madison on Jan. 27, 2010, when this year's annual survey was done: 499
  • Number unsheltered that night: 68
  • Number of these 567 homeless people said to have severe mental illness: 112
  • Number who were veterans: 60
  • Victims of domestic abuse: 73
  • Had chronic substance-abuse problems: 102
  • Number of shelter nights provided by Porchlight at Madison's emergency shelters in 2009: 31,889
  • Number of men who stayed at the emergency shelters last year: 1,273
  • Number of organizations that served meals at Porchlight in 2008: 55
  • Percentage of shelter guests who said they were treated professionally by shelter staff in a December 2009 survey conducted by Porchlight: 91

Sources: Porchlight Inc. and Homeless Consortium.

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