More than 60 of Madison's homeless, normally scattered all over the city, are gathered Friday night among the Philosopher's Stones alongside the Wisconsin Historical Museum, just off the Capitol. They're sitting or milling around, waiting this warm August evening for a special delivery.
The word has obviously gotten out.
At exactly 10 p.m., a caravan of sport utility vehicles, trucks and cars pulls up. In minutes, volunteers are swarming everywhere. Boxes, bins and racks of clothing are unloaded. Piles of donations including "grab and go" food - coffee, bottled water, cookies, apples and bananas - are set up on folding tables.
"C'mon you guys," urges organizer Tami Miller, tossing sleeping bags from a pickup truck. "Take anything you need."
Over 100 homeless people calmly pick through the goods like bargain-hunters at a flea market - ponchos, tarps, hygiene products, emergency first aid kits, shoes and socks. An hour later, everything left is packed up. The vehicles and volunteers vanish, the homeless disperse.
Miller calls these events Midnight Runs. She has made three of them since last October, when she began doing weekly food runs to downtown Madison. She points to the orderliness of the group as one indication that the people she's been helping are not to be feared.
"We've had a couple of fights over the food," she says. "But it's almost always a peaceful group. The vast majority are not the troublemakers people think they are."
An executive assistant at Madison Gas and Electric, Miller, 42, didn't set out to start a charity. She was simply looking for a way to help.
The Belleville mother of two had been volunteering at St. Mary's Hospital when a homeless woman came in agitated, dirty and crying, having a psychotic episode.
"She was around my mom's age. I went in to calm her until the doctor came in, and she started screaming, 'Tell God to help me, tell God to help me! Please help me, Lord, I can't take it anymore!'"
Miller was shaken. "This woman had no one to turn to," she says. "I just thought it was incredibly sad."
Wondering what she could do, Miller did a web search on homelessness in Madison and discovered a photo essay by Glenn Austin, shot on State Street, called Inside Voices. Austin had documented homeless people in a way that demystified them, humanized them. Miller liked that approach - direct contact with people in need, meeting them where they are, without judgment. Through Austin she got in contact with others interested in grassroots outreach.
One group had repeatedly planned its own State Street food run. But when the time came, volunteers were scarce. "One day I said, 'Fine, I'll do it myself,'" Miller says. She filled buckets with homemade cookies, walking up and down State Street and handing them out to the homeless.
"I just started talking to them," she says. "I said, 'Hey, are you hungry?' While they were eating, I heard their stories. Many of these people work. Most of the rest are unemployable because they are mentally ill, terminally sick or addicted."
What made her follow through when the others hesitated? "I'm stubborn!" Miller laughs. "I guess it's the Norwegian in me." Beyond that, she refuses to give herself credit.
"There's nothing extraordinary about what I'm doing," she says. "All I'm doing is helping out people who need it, and doing it in a really basic and human way."
But Miller did get the ball rolling for people who wanted to help. Now she has hundreds of followers on her Facebook page, Feeding the State Street Family; a network of donors and volunteers; and a garage filled with supplies.
Miller has used the donations so far to supply more than 1,700 meals, plus survival gear.
One woman had a job but was sleeping in her van, which needed work. Miller knew the woman had to keep her job if she stood any chance of escaping her situation. She arranged for repairs to be done free of charge, by a mechanic friend who was happy to do it.
"People like the idea of giving in a way that goes straight to the people who need it," she says.
Miller clarifies that she supports organizations that are already helping the homeless. "But they can't do everything for everybody. And sometimes what's needed is just a hug, or listening to them and talking to them, treating them like a real person."
She sees her mission as offering encouragement. She uses words like "nurturing" and "support." She knows many of State Street's homeless by name, and greets them as they come through the food line. "How is your foot doing?" she asks one man.
That kind of empathy comes from experience. Miller spent two nights on the streets this summer, sleeping among a group of homeless. "I'd walked these same streets earlier in my business clothes and gotten nods and smiles. Now people wouldn't even look at me. I could not believe the things people yelled at us. People who would never tolerate racial slurs have no problem laughing at and insulting the homeless."
Even as a single parent she finds time to spend several nights a week and Saturdays with her charity, now an official project through the Center for Community Stewardship.
"I got hooked on this," she says, describing the gratitude she gets from the people she serves. "They're very sweet, very grateful. I mean, I get hugs, and when we did the last Midnight Run there was practically cheering when we brought out the sleeping bags.
"I love it," she says. "I wish I could do more."
As cold weather approaches, the Midnight Run is meant to benefit the chronically homeless - people who for whatever reason will not be in the shelters even in the coldest weather. Why the late hour? By 10 p.m., says Miller, people who have not used up their time in the shelters are already off the street. So the survival gear she offers goes directly to those who will be sleeping outdoors.
She's also sensitive to another concern. "Late at night means less passersby. Nobody likes to be seen taking a handout," she says. "This gives people a little more privacy and dignity."
After this delivery, Miller is looking ahead. She's working with police on safety issues, and she's met with Brenda Konkel, the former four-term alder for Madison's 2nd District, about the county's proposed day center for the homeless. That facility would provide showers, restrooms, laundry, computers and phones to connect with employment opportunities.With the current debate over panhandling on State Street, Miller knows that her charity is not without controversy and that future food runs may have to move elsewhere. She also knows problems like mental illness, abuse and addiction cannot be fixed with sleeping bags or meals.
But fixing things is not her goal.
"I guess my goal for the whole thing is just to show compassion to people, and show them that somebody cares," she says. "And if I can do something practical to make their journey a little less difficult, I will."