Blessed are the poor in spirit
The long and painful process of providing for those who need help the most
Life and death on the streets
"I'm homeless, I ain't hopeless. There's a difference."
—Kenneth Banks, homeless resident of Madison, Wis.
MADISON, Wis.—Everybody who knew Joe Jennings called him Leprechaun, or Lep for short.
Nicknames like that have a habit of sticking around, especially when attached to someone like Jennings. The combination of his short stature and Irish heritage made it inevitable.
He moved to Madison in the late 1980s, long after the turmoil of the 70s had died down and it was settling into its own as one of the most liberal cities in America.
After struggling with alcoholism for years and periodically losing contact with his two children, the unemployed Jennings needed a soft place to land in case rock bottom was closer than he thought. The capital city, with its noted populist agenda and wide net of social services, was the perfect place for someone like himself—or so he thought.
Jennings, like so many others, hated the word "homeless."
When it finally happened, when he spent his first night outside just a few years after arriving in Madison, he realized it.
Jennings knew the power that word had. Why people used it as a noun—"the homeless"—instead of an adjective—"homeless people."
They couldn't be human, those bundles of dirty blankets on the streets every night. Not in Madison. This city would never let that happen.
“One of the hardest things to maintain while living on the streets is an identity,” said Jennifer Hautman, a close friend of Jennings, who only ever refers to him as Leprechaun. He was able to stay himself, she says, in part because of the moniker.
Jennings soon became a regular at Bethel Lutheran Church, which operates a warming shelter for homeless individuals out of its downtown Madison location, offering a place to escape the cold during Wisconsin's harsh winter and an occasional bite to eat. The distinct chatter of its lunchroom, however, belies the unfortunate reality which exists just a few feet away.
Six faces look out over an abandoned storage room at Bethel, their gaze crystallized behind the glass of a few cheap picture frames.
It’s a heart-wrenching sight, six portraits for six men—all dead, all of them chronically homeless during their lives. A seventh space lies empty, an unadorned square meant to commemorate a seventh life.
This frame belongs to Jennings.
"People are dying left and right out here, and nothing is being done to fix the problem."
—Teresa Skenandore, homeless resident of Madison, Wis.
Most shelters provide dinner and a warm place to sleep, but the real cost of providing for those without homes or an income is accrued during daylight hours: food, healthcare, transportation and hygiene, among other things. Aside from not being able to offer all these necessities, Madison's current services are spread out across almost 10 miles of the city's isthmus, making resources impossibly hard to access for those without transportation.
A map of services available to Madison's Homeless
This effectively raises the opportunity cost of everyday tasks, including finding somewhere to live in Madison's onerous housing market—which boasts less than 25 percent the national vacancy rate and market prices well above state and national averages as well.
Five years ago the first picture was hung on the wall of Bethel’s back storage room. A man named Eric Manley passed away just outside the church’s doors, a homeless man frozen half to death in Wisconsin’s harsh winter. As the population of homeless individuals in Dane County hit its all-time high following the Great Recession and the number of deaths began to pile up, homelessness in Madison had finally begun to manifest itself in the public eye.
The Centers for Disease Control say the mortality rate for homeless individuals is already four to nine times the national average—cutting life expectancies down by an average of 25 years—making it a condition deadlier than some forms of cancer. Without adequate resources to help people maintain health and escape the streets, those in Dane County face an even bleaker outlook.
Last year alone, 10 homeless individuals in Madison died, most of them well under 60 years old. Many of these deaths were preventable, caused by poor healthcare, exposure to cold or mental illness, all problems commonly associated with homelessness.
Everybody, from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi down to the citizens who have to step over sleeping bodies on their way to work in the morning, agrees there is a problem—and it's not going away.
Solutions are a little harder to come by.
The people's movement
“I have made it clear that the City of Madison does not have the resources or the responsibility to take care of Dane County’s and Wisconsin’s homeless population.”
—Statement from Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Sept. 28, 2012
To understand the movement for a comprehensive day resource center in Madison, it’s important to note that it didn’t start with homeless people at all. Nobody in Madison really wants to talk about problems until they hit home—with home being Reynolds Park on Oct. 7, 2011.
A group of young activists, 20 days after the original protesters set camp in New York City’s Financial District and called themselves Occupy Wall Street, slept at Reynolds Park in solidarity with the movement against social and economic inequality.
Three days later the group relocated to a popular hangout for homeless people in Veteran’s Park on the Capitol Square, and the movement forever morphed to encompass issues pertaining to homelessness.
“It happened a lot throughout the whole nation actually where the activist camps became a place where homeless people could crash, and then the homeless stayed when everyone else got tired and went back to their lives,” said Brenda Konkel, Executive Director of the Tenant Resource Center in Madison, who got her start as an advocate for homeless individuals by helping out Occupy campers with legal issues. “Occupy Madison, like so many other camps, morphed after we got kicked out of a few places.”
These camps were high-profile, ganing public supporters and opponents as media coverage grew. A spotlight was shining on all the city's shortcomings, which legislators were scrambling to fix.
An excerpt from the July 2012 meeting of the Dane County Board of Supervisors outlines holes in Madison's service structure:
At the July 12 meeting the Dane County Board received the Madison Urban Ministry Committee’s report on Alternative Occupy sites, which identified gaps in homeless services, including the following: storage for personal belongings, shower access and a day center where these services could be accessed.
Dane County Resolution 84, approved that day, outlined the proposal for a comprehensive day resource center within the city of Madison, a place for homeless individuals to go in the toughest of times to fulfill basic needs that the general population takes for granted. The project presented the first necessary step toward getting people off the streets and into housing, improving their quality of life and ultimately saving the lives of countless individuals struggling with homelessness.
A site was voted on and approved almost immediately in the city's upper-class East side neighborhood. The tentative opening date was Nov. 1, less than four months after the original proposal. It was ambitious, but the need was pressing, even then.
Alder Larry Palm, whose district the building is in, called a community meeting in the East Madison Community Center gymnasium to gauge resident sentiment on the potential location. The room was small and cramped, the venting system not capable of cooling down so many hot heads.
That warm October day on the hardwood floor of an East side gymnasium the tone of discussion was set, with the all-to-familiar refrain of “not in my backyard.”
“Every site there’s been a day center everybody says we do a good job of keeping it down, not causing any trouble,” said Ulysses Williams, one of three homeless representatives on the Dane County Homeless Issues Committee. “But nobody wants anything to do with the homeless … with that you just kinda [shrug], what can you do?”
So the City and the County turned away, without the shadow of an indication of trying to convince neighborhood residents that the site could work, according to Konkel.
Nobody questioned the decision, however. The 2013 Dane County budget had $600,000 set aside to build or renovate a site, and the beginnings of a temporary day center for the winter months were already stirring, marking what seemed like the brightest future for Madison’s homeless population in recent memory.
The day center’s projected Nov. 1 grand opening turned into the goal of having a property to begin construction on by April 13, 2013.
It would become the first of many dates on the project’s calendar to be crossed out.
“Looking back, of course, you have to question whether the county was really serious about doing this,” Dane County Board Chair John Hendricks said. “It was the beginning of a sequence of events that can only be described as a fiasco.”
This story, to the uninitiated, may play out like a saga of local government, of gridlock and incompetence on a massive scale. It reads like a Shakespearian tragedy—a noble cause flawed by proximity to popular stigma, a crusade plagued by idealism and misinformation.
But to ignore this tale’s human element is to unravel society’s moral fabric like the string hanging off an old sweater. This is a story about discrepancies—between what we as a society say and what we do, between those at the top and those at the bottom, between image and reality.
After all, the township in question is the liberal bastion of Madison, popularized as 77 square miles of left-wing populism surrounded by cold, hard reality.
Slowly but surely
“If he had better healthcare, Lep would still be here. If we had a day center with access to resources, Lep would still be here.”
—Teresa Skenandore, a close friend of Joe Jennings and fellow homeless citizen of Madison
At just 57 years old, Jennings had his share of health problems, namely heart disease and what those close to him believed to be early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s difficult to know exactly what ailed him—without insurance homeless individuals often go years between doctor’s visits, and get poor service even when they are seen.
“One of the things about hospitals and homelessness—They treat you, they find out you’re homeless, they give you your medicine, then they say ‘go,’” Williams said. “It becomes a real problem for people like Joe. They either take too much medicine or not enough ... They’re very rude to homeless people at the hospital, and it has consequences.”
Jennings was very well known among the homeless community and had a large group of friends that looked out for him, according to Smith. After being on the streets for the better part of a decade he was used to sleeping outside, traveling at times with groups as large as 18. He looked out for them and they looked after him, helping with his medications despite protests of self-reliance.
“He was, for the most part, independent. He just forgot a lot of things,” Smith said. “He’d be the first one to say ‘don’t worry about me, I’m more worried about you.’ Most people know him that way, because he did so much for the community, he just tried to help everyone he came across.”
The warming house at Bethel proved to be invaluable for Jennings during his many years on the streets of Madison, and in his own way he played a role in the fight for a permanent day center, speaking a few times at city and county meetings and talking to as many people as possible about the project. Jennings channeled his energy on good days into work at Street Pulse, a newspaper in Madison dedicated to issues surrounding homelessness.
“He was very well known as an activist,” Smith said. “He had this knack for getting people to come out.”
Everyone who knew him seems to agree, Jennings’ problems would have gotten better with the treatment he might have access to at a resource center. It was a classic catch-22—he needed resources to get better, but he needed to get better to properly advocate for those resources in the first place.
“The day center is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of homeless services, this is the first step in saving people like Joe,” Wild said. “Not being able to access any resources or get any professional help definitely played a role in his declining health.”
During December of 2012 a 22-inch snowstorm hit Madison, covering the isthmus for two days with a waist-deep layer of glistening white powder. Most of the city's operations shut down for the entire day, and many people stayed inside, hoping to wait out the storm. Jennings and the rest of the city's homeless, however, watched the deluge from whatever cover they could find on short notice.
Sarah Gillmore and Z! Haukness, charged by Madison's largest homeless service provider, Porchlight, with operating a temporary daytime warming shelter (affectionately called the DWS by its patrons) during the winter of 2012-‘13, opened up their facility right on time that December day.
While providing a social safety net for those in need can be a process filled with so much frustration and pain, the DWS on East Washington Avenue stands out as one of the the lone bright spots in Madison's recent initiative to curb homelessness. The DWS even received a written commendation from the Madison Common Council.
It had promise as a permanent location as well. The site certainly didn't have everything on the city and county's wish list, but a lot can be done with $600,000—and local officials were getting desperate.
The DWS’ only fault was its proximity to next-door neighbor the Rainbow Project, a home for battered children. Before anyone could discuss logistics Dane County Executive Joe Parisi had assured everyone the DWS site was only temporary, to be used for one winter then vacated.
If one regret sticks out to those fighting for a permanent day shelter, it was the temporary nature of the East Washington location.
The DWS' success ultimately stemmed from its service model, which differs significantly from those currently employed in the city of Madison.
Porchlight, which runs another similar day warming shelter called Hospitality House in Madison, has a zero-tolerance policy for any sort of intoxication and routinely bans people from using its services for life, a policy which has attracted criticism over the years. The site is also located miles away from the downtown area, making it hard for many to get there. At this point, only a fraction of the homeless people in the City of Madison use Hospitality House.
“The facility is… a shed. It’s a pole barn. It’s a terrible facility,” Konkel said. “The street language I’ve heard is that it’s got the stink of Porchlight on it. Porchlight is what everyone is trying to avoid.”
This time, however, Gillmore and Haukness convinced leaders at Porchlight to employ a "harm reduction" model for the DWS. Essentially, the duo works with everyone who walks in the door, regardless of his or her immediate state or backstory. If an individual causes a disturbance, they are almost always given a second chance.
“Everything we’re doing is 100 percent evidence based and being implemented in other places, other communities,” Gillmore said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, we just want Madison to be honest that everything isn’t rosy … our model has always been ‘we’re in this together, regardless of circumstance.’”
The strategy was a welcome change for those who had become disillusioned with other service models.
“They produced a lot of positives for the homeless community,” Williams said. “The staff can make a difference in whether or not an organization is successful or if it fails, their staff made it a success.”
Without the promise of another site the following winter, however, Gillmore and Haukness spent most of 2013 finding board members for their own nonprofit, Shine608. Upon official incorporation, Shine put in the only bid to run Resolution 84's program and won.
The permanent center wasn't going to open over the winter of 2013-'14—there was too much to do and too little time—but Dane County now had an operator and all the money it needed. All that was left was a site in which to open shop.
“Talking isn't doing. It is a kind of good deed to say well; and yet words are not deeds.”
—William Shakespeare, Henry VIII
Without a shelter for daytime use during the winter of 2013-‘14, a large number of homeless people found themselves inside the Central Madison Public library. It was a strange juxtaposition—downtown’s newest, multimillion dollar municipal building, just a few months old, becoming the only place left for many to go during daylight hours.
As the lakes surrounding Madison began to thaw and spring began her descent onto the isthmus, talk of a permanent day center resumed, but it was too little, too late for residents like Jennings, who—after using up their allotted number of days in the town’s shelters—had spent most of the winter outside.
“Joe’s health started deteriorating early [in 2014],” Hautman said. “But he was always upbeat. You’d never see him down.”
That spring, Jennings had been experimenting with not taking his medication for periods of time. The side effects of his particular cocktail of pills, combined with occasional bouts of ill-advised drinking, were becoming too much to handle—especially for someone living day to day on the streets.
“That medication would send his mind to places where he wouldn’t even remember what he did that day, or even who he was sometimes,” Hautman said. “It really took a toll on him.”
On the night of April 3, right around the time Jennings’ began sleeping outside after using up his annual 90 nights in Madison’s shelters, the County Executive’s office released a statement saying that the decision had been made to purchase Porchlight’s Hospitality House for renovation into a comprehensive day resource center.
The county board had ultimate approval over the site, but they had no input or advance notice of the decision, even for those who had worked so hard for so long to make the day center a reality.
For advocates and the homeless people involved in the project, attempting to include a largely ineffective Porchlight building—miles from downtown—into their vision without having any sort of discussion was nothing short of an insult.
“You don’t take something you want to be successful and put it in the same place as something that’s been wildly unsuccessful,” Konkel said. “It ruins the opportunity for a lot of people. They just won’t even go there.”
After two years and innumerable man-hours spent, the project was slipping away like so much sand through the activists’ fingertips. Local government can feel like a struggle sometimes, but this was playing out more like a soap opera than legislating.
Dane County District 6 Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner tried to fight the purchase of Hospitality House with an amendment raising the project’s funding to $4 million, which would allow for a site in downtown Madison’s significantly more expensive property market. The municipal public works department also determined the site would exceed water and sewer capacities, as well as require installation of sprinklers, adding significantly to the cost and timeframe of the project. The Town of Madison, a smaller municipal entity within the City of Madison, then voted 4-1 against the county’s plan to purchase Hospitality House, and set an exorbitant list of conditions that would have to be met before the project would be approved.
And yet, County Executive Parisi stood the course. Wegleitner’s proposal failed miserably, 21-14. The County skirted the water and sewer capacity problem in June by agreeing to a maximum 99-person capacity, despite an average of 125 people who used the DWS during the winter of 2012-’13 and a homeless population which had grown since then.
It’s unclear to everyone except Joe Jennings what happened—a couple people claimed he lost his pills during a particularly jarring mental bout, some say his medications were stolen, and others say Jennings just decided to stop taking them.
It was the end of his treatment, and his condition began to worsen.
Weeks went by and his friends made sure to look after him, no longer allowing Jennings to travel alone. Hospitals had already turned him away, leaving Hautman, Skenandore and a large group of people worried with nowhere to turn.
Meanwhile, the proposal for Madison’s day center, a cause Jennings was so passionate about, suffered an eerily similar decline.
After dozens of stipulations, amendments, meetings and re-wordings, the project’s coup de grace came in the form of a four-page document.
The Dane County Corporation Counsel, along with Executive Parisi, filed a Notice of Claim in circuit court, threatening to sue the Town of Madison if its overbearing conditions are not removed. The Town has until February to respond, after which the case will proceed to court.
“Both sides are gearing up for the eventuality [of a showdown in court],” City of Madison Lawyer Michael May said in an email to District 16 Alder Denise DeMarb.
A lawsuit will take months, if not years to settle. The project is effectively on hiatus until then, with no contingency plans in place.
“It could end up taking one of [a few] forms. But five more years? 10 more years? I’m not sure when this will finally happen,” Konkel said. “What really scares me is that people freeze to death, and we’ve got more cases of ‘I told you so.’”
People remember Jennings for his heart.
More than once, his friends recall Jennings' giving his dinner away, going hungry so those he cared about wouldn't have to. He worried constantly about the burden he was causing those he cared about.
In the end, it was his heart that failed.
“He helped so many people ... the irony of the situation is that If he would have had some help himself, his condition might have been a little more manageable. He might even still be here today.” Smith said. “He would have at least given it a try.”
On a warm night in June, Jennings passed away in his sleep under the Yahara Bridge on Madison’s East side. His friends tried to revive him, but it was no use. He was pronounced dead upon arrival to the hospital.
After fighting his condition for the better part of a decade, a massive heart attack claimed the life of Joseph Jennings. Leprechaun's luck had finally run out.
“It’s sad to think about somebody dying and vanishing into thin air. [Homeless individuals] are humans too and deserve that kind of dignity, to be remembered."
—Conner Wild, Homeless Services Coordinator at Bethel Lutheran Church
On Dec. 21, as they do every year, Madison Urban Ministries will gather at the Capitol Square to lead a group of citizens, advocates and congregations in a memorial service for all the homeless people who died in Madison this year.
While the debate over how and why to provide services for the city's homeless individuals rages on right up the street, Jennings’ name will be read. Somebody will light a candle. His friends will cry.
Afterword, many in attendance will take the short walk to the City/County Building steps or find a heating grate somewhere nearby, in an attempt to make it through the year’s longest night and stay off next year’s list.
In the meantime, the only way to survive is to keep the faith.
“I’m homeless, I ain’t hopeless,” Madison resident Kenneth Banks said. “There’s a difference.”
Exactly two weeks after the intended Nov. 1, 2014, opening date for Madison's day center, Dane County was selected as an at-risk area by New York-based nonprofit Community Solutions, and will be part of its "Zero: 2016" campaign to end homelessness. Community Solutions sends representatives to a number of U.S. locations each year to work with city and county officials in an attempt to engineer unique strategies for each community to deal with its homeless population.
Five days after that announcement, the Dane County Board of Supervisors approved a landmark four-year, $8 million dollar line-item in its upcoming budget, with the only stipulation that the money be used for "affordable housing."
Even with these developments, however, the future of Madison's homeless population is anything but certain.
"It could be another hollow victory, but at least it's another starting point," Konkel said. "I can tell you from past experience nothing's going to happen until there's a public buy in, and who knows how bad it's going to get before that happens."
For right now at least, the saga of Madison's day resource center and the death of Joe Jennings will remain as cautionary tales of life in one of America's worst cities to be homeless.