Madison Magazine February 2016
Madison Magazine February 2016

Published in Madison Magazine, February 2016

Madison, Wis. – Shamiaa Stewart first experiences homelessness in 2004, when she’s only nineteen. On the outside, she’s a legal adult. On the inside, she’s a child who has never known stability. The oldest of nine children born to drug-addicted parents, Stewart spends her first twelve or thirteen years with her family in a cramped apartment, the power often cut, the refrigerator usually empty. It’s a cold, claustrophobic struggle, until Child Protective Services pulls the kids out of the home. After a couple of placements don’t work out, fifteen-year-old Stewart, who battles severe clinical depression, is sent to live at a residential facility for children with mental health issues. She runs away more than once. She’s looking forward to her eighteenth birthday so she can leave the system and the system ad reunite with her mom, who’s gotten clean and left Stewart’s dad, who hasn’t. But just days after she turns eighteen, her mom dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm. And so Stewart, now finally of legal age but with nothing to her name but a last resort, moves in with her father in 2003. One year later, her dad is evicted.

“So I ended up at the Salvation Army for a little bit. Learned the bus system on my own. A couple other single ladies helped me out, showing me around, the most important places I needed to know. The regular homeless,” she says, her voice rich and low, her tone matter-of-fact, a little resigned. “They were very helpful to me. They were very nice, actually.”

On and off for the next four years, Stewart becomes one of those “regular homeless”—until she finds a way out through a community effort called The Road Home. Until then, she’s in and out of homelessness as a single person, as a partner in a relationship and as a young mother-to-be. Stewart, and so many others like her, are among the homeless population you don’t hear much about, despite their majority: Each year in Dane County, about 3,500 people experience homelessness—nearly half of them children. In its 2014–15 annual tracking, the Madison Metropolitan School District alone identified 1,414 homeless kids in its schools.

“Families make up close to half the homeless population and they’re not visible, except in very rare instances, because they’re still trying to get their kids to school. They’re still trying to work the part-time jobs they have,” says Martha Cranley, director of community impact at United Way of Dane County. “They might be the person serving your coffee at the drive-thru window with a kid in childcare and a kid in your kid’s grade school. Many times they have very little education, certainly no post-secondary degree, not great rental history and many times also themselves the victim of extreme poverty as children. Or trauma, almost always. That’s the homeless population that you don’t see.”


About ten years ago, United Way of Dane County—one of the largest funders of programs for ending homelessness for families, says Cranley—completely overhauled its approach to homelessness. The old model funded emergency shelter and safety net programs for its partners: YWCA Madison, The Road Home, Salvation Army and Porchlight. Today, United Way allocates the same amount—about $2 million a year—to the same partners, but those efforts are now focused on a decades-old concept called Housing First. Its proponents maintain that shelter is a basic human right, and that you shouldn’t have to first solve your problems—sober up, find a job, get a car and stabilize your mental health—before you “earn” the right to housing.

“What we came down to is, if we could get people into housing as quickly as possible, the trajectory of their lives is so much different,” says Cranley. “We’re not solving their poverty yet, but it’s a first step on that road, and it’s certainly a first step to everything that we know about trauma and early childhood development. All of those things are made much worse by being homeless and being in a shelter.”

But a key barrier seems to be the very thing that Madison loves to celebrate about itself: It’s a really great place to live. At least for some people. Luxury and high-end development is historically high, while vacancy rates in recent years are historically low, hovering around two percent. (But it’s risen to 2.94 percent for the first three quarters of 2015, according to the Dane County executive’s office; mayor Paul Soglin says a balanced market would be at five percent.) At $53,933, Dane County’s median household income has not kept up with soaring housing costs—the average Dane County resident spends a staggering fifty-five percent of his or her income on housing. And even when at-risk renters have the money, it’s a landlord’s market. For people of color, this is compounded by the insidious, multigenerational impact of Madison’s gaping racial disparities. Nearly fifty-six percent of Dane County’s African American children are living in poverty. Many still can’t find a home at the end of the sixty- to ninety-day emergency shelter limits, even with the help of programs—and there are dozens of programs.

For their part, the county and city are partnering to create more affordable, supportive housing, most notably sixty units on Rethke Road for chronically homeless men and women and forty-five units on Tree Lane for women and families. With his $2.75 million Affordable Housing Development Fund, Dane County executive Joe Parisi is awarding grants to private-sector and nonprofit developers who are working on this same goal, including Movin’ Out, Inc. for forty-eight units on West Broadway, Gorman & Company for seventy-six units at Union Corners, and Housing Initiatives, Inc., which partners with seventeen agencies to provide services. Housing Initiatives is an innovative twenty-year-old organization that works exclusively with homeless veterans and individuals with severe and persistent mental illness, ninety-five percent of whom are still off the streets. (Further, Madison Development Corporation announced plans in December for forty-six units on Mifflin Street. It’s downtown’s first low-cost housing project in ten years—and the nonprofit hopes to sell two other existing properties to Housing Initiatives.) But there’s more to the solution than affordable housing.

“If people weren’t living in poverty, housing would be more affordable,” says Parisi, citing a low minimum wage, ongoing state cuts to public education from kindergarten through college and federal cuts to housing funds. What’s more, “There’s no one picture of homelessness.” Poverty, mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction, family violence, people who can’t secure housing after incarceration—these groups may overlap, but all still have very different needs. Those needs also shift. For example, when Stewart first became homeless, she was a single woman; eventually, she became a mom in a family unit.

Based on numbers alone, kids and families are at the center of most homelessness solutions, and United Way’s efforts are critical. It currently serves about a third of Dane County’s 445 homeless families, with an eighty percent success rate in keeping them settled in permanent housing—more than twice as successful as emergency shelter, at only half the cost. Nationally, the average cost per exit to permanent housing was significantly lower for rapid re-housing (about $4,100) than it was for shelter (about $10,000, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness). Since its housing-first paradigm shift in 2006, United Way and its partners have effectively ended homelessness for nine hundred families in Dane County. United Way also partners with MMSD’s Transitional Education Program, or TEP, to identify and serve Madison’s 1,414 homeless kids.

“And countywide, the number is close to two thousand,” says Jani Koester, a TEP resource teacher for twenty-six years. At the biannual Homeless and Education Network meeting between all Dane County school districts and liaisons, says Koester, “Everybody was reporting that their numbers were up this year.”

But solutions, funding and community buy-in are up, too, across the board. Moreover, stakeholders are getting on the same page in unprecedented ways. New this year, the Community Action Coalition began facilitating a coordinated entry system with a public hotline and a single, shared database of the county’s homeless, triaged by a new vulnerability index and accessible by all partner agencies. Plans for a city- and county-funded day resource center are slowly moving forward. The hope is that the center will relieve some of the pressure on downtown public common areas, provide a safe place for outreach between case workers and distrusting, vulnerable homeless and create a one-stop shop for all families who are unsure where to start or go next.

“This past year, we’ve changed the system so much. We’re working together in ways that we never have before,” says Torrie Kopp Mueller, housing director for the YWCA. “And in other communities where they say, ‘we’ve ended homelessness,’ we’re doing the things that they’re doing.”


It’s hard to pinpoint the worst part about experiencing homelessness. Most who end up homeless have already endured a lifetime of traumas, and homelessness in itself is a fresh, ongoing trauma. Forced to leave the night shelter by 8 a.m. and unable to return until 5 p.m., many pack all of their belongings and go off to jobs and school in the morning uncertain where they’ll be sleeping that night. Shelters—of which Madison has at least seven, each designed to serve a specific portion of the homeless population—are always full and they all, by law, have stay limits. Although it’s often a few steps forward and a couple of steps back, ideally shelter stays give homeless individuals and families just enough time to connect with programs and services that will give them a chance to get back on their feet.

Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-three, Stewart struggled to do just that. And remarkably, within a year of her first Salvation Army emergency shelter stint, she earned her CNA license, secured a home health care job through the state, got her first apartment and even fell in love. “And that worked out for a little while, a year or two,” she says, “and then I got injured, and I couldn’t really work anymore, and things started falling apart from there. I started getting behind in my rent.”

And then, at the age of twenty-one, she found out she was pregnant. At seven and a half months along, Stewart landed back at the Salvation Army shelter for single women. Once her daughter Valencia was born, the duo was in and out of the Salvation Army (upstairs in the family shelter and, later, the Warming House), the YWCA’s Third Street program (long-term housing with rent assistance), the living room couches and spare bedrooms of friends and, finally, The Road Home in 2008.

“And that was the last time I was homeless,” says Stewart, her chin lifting. “I haven’t been homeless since.”

The Road Home is the only agency in Dane County that works exclusively with homeless families with children. Its programming includes a day shelter, a night shelter in which more than fifty local faith congregations with 1,800 volunteers take turns housing families, and a handful of supportive housing solutions. One of them is 2014’s House of Hope, thirty units of affordable supportive housing that pairs each family with a master-level social worker in a building purchased and refurbished with a $4.5 million capital campaign; ninety-three percent of these families are maintaining housing for at least one year. Another is House-Ability, launched in 2008, a collaborative effort with the Salvation Army and YWCA to provide permanent rental subsidies and case management services for homeless families who have a parent with a disability. That year, due to her diagnosed mental illness, Stewart and her daughter became House-Ability’s second client.

“That program has been so great to me and my daughter, you don’t even understand,” says Stewart, who credits The Road Home and “the awesome people there” for her success. “Kristin, she was my case worker at the time. She’s the one who really helped me out a lot.”

That’s Kristin Rucinski, who’s been with The Road Home for ten years and now serves as its executive director.

“What I love about The Road Home is I feel we’re a community response to homelessness,” Rucinski says of the agency that started out as an overflow shelter for the Salvation Army in 1999. However, it wasn’t long before the overflow needed an overflow. “All of the family shelters are full 365 days a year, so there’s a waiting list. Every single day of the year, we have to tell families that there’s no space for them. I can’t even describe what that feeling is like.”

About seven years ago, says Rucinski, The Road Home started making a push toward housing—a shift she largely credits United Way with catalyzing. Buying its own apartment building through the Housing and Hope campaign has proved critical in Madison’s notoriously tight housing market. Even more critically, case managers and social workers can go directly to their clients in their homes to provide key services, instead of having to track them down in shelter or temporary housing.

“The average two-bedroom is now almost $1,000, and a lot of our families work entry-level jobs making literally seven or eight or nine dollars an hour. On the high end, they’re bringing in $1,200 to $1,400 a month,” says Rucinski. “And then you have barriers like poor credit, an eviction or two, maybe not a solid housing history because they’ve been bouncing around with family and friends for so long, and it’s just one obstacle after another that families have to overcome, just to get a chance at housing. And then you add on all of the underlying things like racism.”

Homeless service providers have described a rental market that includes racial discrimination, like a landlord asking inappropriate questions if an applicant’s name “sounds Black.” Or when a white case manager will call for an apartment and an eager landlord will schedule a showing, and then she “shows up with a family who’s Black and all of a sudden, that unit’s not available anymore. The YWCA’s Mueller, who, like Rucinski, is white, says “most” of her clients are people of color as well. Close to eighty-five percent of The Road Home’s clients—including Stewart—are people of color.

“I’ll call to inquire about an apartment on behalf of a family and they’ll tell me all about it. And then when my client calls to set up a time to see it, it’s suddenly not available,” says Mueller, adding that that’s not even the worst of it. “I have somebody right now who’s telling me she’d called someone on Craigslist about an apartment and he called her the ‘N’ word. Said, ‘I told you I don’t want your people here.’”

There are plenty of other reasons beyond overt racism to reject the rental applications of people like Stewart, and it’s hard to say which carries the most weight. As an African American woman, she has found that race has definitely played a role for her; she recalls the time an older white gentleman offered a tour of his place to the white candidate whose appointment overlapped with Stewart’s, but not for her. “I could see the shift in his eyes when he saw who was walking through the door because we’d only had email contact,” says Stewart. “I think it all kind of entwines together.” She shrugs. “Homeless, Black, credit isn’t good, Section 8, all of that. I don’t know if people are intentionally trying to be racist, I mean, but it’s there. You feel it. You’ve just got to kind of move on to the next thing.”

Besides, Stewart, like many in her position, has a history that looks bad enough on paper to a potential landlord. She has an eviction nine years ago that’s still ruining her chances, and she has no idea how far into the future her past will reach. There are so many intersecting circumstances and inequalities at play in Dane County.

“Maybe you don’t have as many job opportunities because people are discriminating against you there. Maybe you haven’t had educational opportunities because your parents have been discriminated against,” says Mueller. But, more often than not, rejecting a tenant like Stewart is an all-too-easy business decision. “Landlords have said to me, ‘Torrie, I really like working with your program, but when I have an opening I get maybe seven applications, and there’s usually a standout, someone who has no negative landlord history, no criminal background, has great income. Of course as a business owner that’s who you’re going to go with.’ I don’t fault them for that. But it’s definitely an added challenge right now.”


As of the first of this year, a now thirty-year-old Stewart has voluntarily left The Road Home’s House-Ability program.

“After eight years, something inside me just felt like it was time to release. Give the space to someone else who needs it,” she says. “There’s a lot of families on these waiting lists. I personally know someone on the waiting list for the program that I’m in. And if I have an opportunity to get assistance from another area, then I think I should take it and let someone else have the spot.”

That new assistance is Section 8 housing, which finally came through after years on the wait list; it caps her rent at thirty percent of her income. Finding a new place wasn’t easy: She endured twenty different rejected applications before opting to stick with her current landlord, where she’s moved into a larger unit. This is the most stable Stewart has ever felt. She’s got a good job in retail, where she was just promoted to shift supervisor; most of her coworkers don’t know she was ever homeless, and those who know can’t believe it. Her mental health management is relatively under control; she’s friendly and outgoing, and those days when it’s all so overwhelming she can’t even get out of bed are fewer and farther between. She’s got a vehicle she shares with her daughter’s father (although the windshield wipers don’t work). Most importantly, her daughter Valencia is a shy, sweet, bright and thriving third-grader—with no memory of ever being homeless.

“It scares me a lot—am I going to be able to keep it together? If I start falling behind on my rent, what’s going to happen? That’s one of my biggest fears, becoming homeless again,” says Stewart. “Especially now that my daughter is older, I want her to have a stable living environment, stable housing, where she feels safe in her own home.”

Although Valencia is not considered homeless, nearly two thousand of her classmates in Dane County are. About seventy percent of them are in the Madison school district, where TEP plays an invaluable role identifying, enrolling and educating those kids. TEP was established to carry out the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that mandates that kids experiencing homelessness receive the same access to and benefits of a quality public education as their counterparts. But it’s hard to teach algebra and French revolutionary history to kids who might be starving, sleep-deprived, tooth-ached or experiencing a variety of symptoms when basic needs are unmet.

“We have expectations that they participate and attend and they’re doing everything they’re expected to do, but sometimes we have to figure out the best way to support them to make that happen,” says Koester, whose kids may need a bus pass, a coat, basic school supplies or more. “If they’re hungry, we feed them. If they’re tired, we make sure they have a way to be rested.”

All the while, Koester and her colleagues are simultaneously trying to protect the privacy of these kids so they don’t suffer further indignities due to the stigma of poverty and homelessness. And still, despite these unimaginable obstacles to education and extremely high-stress conditions, most kids excel within the program, to little or no fanfare.

“There are so many that fly under the radar. That come to school every day, that are sitting next to the other students listening and paying attention and trying to learn, that know education is important and whose parents really are pushing them to do their best at school,” says Koester. “Most of those kids are just the best learners in the class, that you never knew that this was their story.”

But all of these services essentially add up to a day program, and so many kids endure the stress of not knowing where they’ll be going after school, where they’ll be sleeping that night, how or when they’ll get their homework done, let alone have any kind of social life or participate in expensive extracurricular activities. That’s why that home base—housing first—is so foundational to any kind of permanent solution.

It certainly was for Stewart. The life she has today, the life she’s able to give Valencia, once seemed utterly impossible—and would have been, she says, had she not received a chance for housing first and the critical supportive services The Road Home provided. But she has no desire to rely on programs for the rest of her life. Her goal is to keep building on this foundation, to go back to school to be an ultrasound technician just as soon as she can afford it. For now, work has to come first, just like it does for so many of the homeless she’s met along the way. They’re never far from her mind, those women who helped her in the beginning, and all the families she met in shelter in the years after, many of whom were working while homeless, just like her.

“I’ve run across numerous families who found themselves homeless, not because of drugs and alcohol, but because of life,” she says. “Not everybody has someone that they can turn to. Not everybody has someone that they can go stay with until things get better.”

Stewart gives back to The Road Home by helping set up for its events and speaking at its functions, despite her stage fright. In speaking out publicly about her own struggles, she hopes she can help others.

“There are a lot of reasons why people become homeless. Like me, it was everything. My mental health, the fact that I lost my job, the fact I couldn’t find a place, I got evicted, credit, all of it played a part. And I’ve talked to a lot of families and a lot of them are in the same boat,” says Stewart. “I guess I want to put a name onto the face, because I want people to understand, even the people that are homeless, that it’s okay. Keep your head up. Keep doing what you’re supposed to do.”