Madison Mayor Paul Soglin got involved with homelessness Friday on an up-close-and-personal basis when he met a family from Chicago that has been sleeping on State Street and ended up giving several of them a ride across town.
It wasn't clear Friday afternoon whether the family — with five adults and five children, ages 4 months to 13 years — would be able to find a place to sleep that night. The shelter for women and children run by the Salvation Army was overflowing.
“They may be sleeping back on the streets,” Soglin said in a phone interview shortly after he left the family at Hospitality House, a day center run by Porchlight Inc.
Finding himself chauffeuring a homeless family seeking services around town was quite a turn of events for Soglin, who has been under fire in the past couple of years over the limitations of homeless services available in the city. Homeless people and their allies — newly politicized by the Occupy movement — set their sights on Soglin after he refused to permit them to erect a tent city in 2012.
Persistent problems of short resources — with homeless more visible downtown than ever before — have been exacerbated by squabbling with the county over funding of a planned day resource center for the homeless. Most recently, a spike of violent incidents in an upper State Street area long frequented by the homeless left Soglin angrily demanding that other communities stop dropping off their homeless people in Madison. He suspects, too, that ex-offenders without ties to Madison may be regularly released here by the state Department of Corrections.
Soglin’s foray into direct services started when he was driving to work Friday morning, he said, and saw several women with small children and luggage in tow waiting at a Madison Metro bus stop. He thought they might be homeless and by the time he reached his office at the City-County Building, decided he wanted to find out more about them. Figuring that a bus driver might remember picking up such a large group, he called the Metro offices.
Turns out that workers at Madison Metro had been trying to help the family since Thursday.
Metro operations supervisor Randy Boyd said that one of his bus drivers radioed her concerns to him after seeing the family sleeping under a tarp Thursday morning near the Overture Center on State Street. Boyd drove over to check it out and while talking to a woman and two older kids, saw several little heads pop up from under the tarp.
“I thought, ‘oh my God,’” he recalled, shocked that a family with so many young children was literally living on the street.
Boyd ended up getting an unused bus to transport the family to the Salvation Army, and gave them bus passes and some money collected at the transit office. After Soglin learned a little about the family’s plight, he decided he wanted to meet them and find out more.
“I wanted to know what is their future — and I’m talking in hours — and I wanted to know what had brought them here with no connection, no destination other than Madison,” he said. So he headed off for the Job Center on Aberg Avenue, where needy people in Dane County sign up for assistance finding work, medical attention and other services.
That’s where I caught up with Lisa Bullock, 47, the matriarch of the family including her three daughters, five grandchildren and the young children’s fathers.
Bullock brought her family to Madison in search of a better life after another young adult daughter, who has been living here for several months, told her that her chances of finding a job were better here than they are in Chicago.
“She told me it’s great, the people here are wonderful,” Bullock said. One of the young men told me he wanted to get out of Chicago to escape the violent gang culture of his neighborhood.
The family boarded a bus and arrived on Sept. 7, going to the Salvation Army on arrival, but being forced to sleep on State Street when space there was not available, Bullock said.
“Nobody likes sleeping out on the street, but we have no choice right now,” she said. "It's a struggle I'm willing to go through to reach my goals." The family gets food at pantries and meals at the shelter.
Bullock said she had worked in hotel housekeeping in Chicago and already has been hired by a hotel in Madison, although she has not yet received a call telling her when she can start.
“The biggest thing is trying to find a place to live,” Bullock said, shortly before heading off to register her 13-year-old daughter for school.
Bullock called the bus tickets that Boyd passed along “a blessing” and said people she has encountered have been very helpful. “If you can find the right connections, you can get a lot of help,” she said.
Soglin said his encounter with the family buttressed some of his long-standing views on resolving the issue of homelessness.
“This is a real family that encompasses all the challenges we’ve been talking about,” he said. “I’m frustrated because we don’t have the resources to help them, despite everything that we do, and I don’t know from where we will get the resources. There are already families like them in our community that we have not adequately served. I’m more convinced than ever that the communities that refuse to take care of their own must be engaged in some legal way, or through shame.”
After speaking with members of the family, he identified five main areas in which they and other homeless families need assistance: Child care, housing, work training, jobs and transportation.
“There’s no question, they want to find a way of becoming productive,” he said. The approach must be a multi-generational, Soglin said, to support the children in school and adults in preparing for and finding work. And efforts need to go beyond what is already being offered in order to be successful, he said.
“I want to fix this,” Soglin said. “I want an alignment between the city, the county, the state and all the nonprofits.”
The city and the county are under state-imposed limits on how much they can raise taxes, so public spending on additional services is limited.
“We’ve been working on rolling out an employment and poverty plan in the next month or two," Soglin said. "There’s going to be a major role for the private sector."
Boyd's encounter with the family affected him deeply.
"I started crying, it was so sad," he said. "I thought 'there but for the grace of God go we.' It's so sad that as a nation we let people slip through the cracks like that."