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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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Madison's homeless advocates brace for winter
Shelters are pushed to the breaking point
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Schooler: 'I honestly don't know what'll we do.'
Schooler: 'I honestly don't know what'll we do.'
Credit:Christopher Guess

Steve Schooler is worried. With winter approaching, he wonders if the emergency shelters he runs for Porchlight will have enough space to accommodate all the homeless men in Madison.

"In the last couple winters, we had 180 guests a night. That's stretching us to the virtual breaking limit," Schooler says. "If we bump up much further above that, there's going to be major issues.

"I honestly don't know what'll we do," he adds. "I'm worried."

Each person is allowed to stay at Porchlight's emergency shelters for only 60 days a year, with the count reset on Nov. 1.

Exceptions are made when the thermometer dips to 20 degrees or below; then no one is turned away. Those nights can make for cramped sleeping arrangements.

Porchlight's main overnight shelter for men is run out of the basement at Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square. When demand grew in the late '90s, the agency began operating two "overflow" shelters at St. John's Lutheran Church on East Washington Avenue and First United Methodist Church on Wisconsin Avenue.

"I don't want another one," Schooler says of the overflow shelters. "We've struggled mightily not to have to open another one."

Nevertheless, Schooler is looking at temporary options for this winter for another overflow space. He has a location in mind but declines to name it since it hasn't been finalized yet.

"The primary challenge for us is that we can't just put the people in the space and say 'See you tomorrow,'" he says. "We need staffing, and we need to get the people to the space."

Sue Wallinger, who works in the city's Community Development Block Grant office, agrees that this winter could stretch resources for the homeless. "Every indication is there will be more unsheltered single men," she says.

Wallinger helps oversee the semiannual count of the homeless population in Madison and Dane County -- on a night in July and in January -- that is part of a nationwide effort to measure homelessness. These counts don't include people who found beds in shelters.

The most recent count, on July 31, 2013, found 185 "unsheltered" homeless people (including 10 families with children). The July before, the numbers were lower, with 162 unsheltered homeless people, including 11 families with children. The January surveys are lower but also show a growing homeless population. On Jan. 30, 2013, there were 99 unsheltered people, compared to 77 on Jan. 25, 2012.

It isn't just Porchlight that is struggling to keep up with the demand.

Leigha Weber, director of social services for the Salvation Army, says all three of its shelter programs are running above capacity. Historically, demand for its family shelter is higher in the summer than winter. "That's just because families are more mobile in the summer," she says. "Plus, family and friends are more likely to take in people when it's cold out."

But that trend was upended last winter when demand rose. Weber fears high demand again this winter. The Salvation Army's emergency family shelter has space for 14 to 16 people, but often takes in 20 to 22.

"Last year our numbers were upwards of 75 people calling in needing emergency [family] shelter," she says.

Demand at the Salvation Army's single-women shelter, which has a capacity of 30, is also growing. On cold nights, it will take in as many as 45 women.

Last year, Weber says, "We literally lined our hallways with cots. We're planning on doing the same thing this year.... It doesn't look pretty. We cram people in here, but on the coldest of cold days, at least everyone is warm."

The Salvation Army's 90-day shelter program for families is also getting stretched. This program gives families 90 days of shelter at three sites, along with case management to help them get a foothold. As of Tuesday, there were 61 families on the waiting list.

Sue Kozubek is worried about this winter. The 59-year-old became homeless last April. She stayed at the Salvation Army but used up her 60 days in June. Unlike the men's shelter, the Salvation Army doesn't reset its 60-day count on Nov. 1, but a year after a person first uses the shelter. The shelter does have a cold-weather exception.

Since Kozubek ran out of days, she's been sleeping in front of the City-County Building, or occasionally on a friend's porch.

"I have a tent," she says, "But I have no place to pitch it."

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