Nathaniel Godfrey has on numerous occasions over the last five years narrowly avoided becoming homeless. Depression, anxiety, alcoholism and bad luck have conspired to ruin his credit, employment and rental histories. Though his fortunes have rebounded in recent months, his situation remains precarious. A single incident could unravel his hard-won gains.
"Twice last year my housing was threatened," says Godfrey, 41, who currently lives in low-cost housing provided by Porchlight Inc., a nonprofit agency that works primarily with homeless males. "I lost my bank account. My job was in danger for a while from missing too much work. I don't know what was going on. I had intense insomnia, possibly mania."
Despite his mounting panic, Godfrey managed to stay sober and keep his job and his apartment. He credits the staff at Porchlight for that.
"There's a good chance I'd have been in that same cycle again. Each time, it's harder to recover from that," he says. "At the time, it seemed easier to just give up. I really felt like throwing my arms up and saying, 'Why can't I fucking make life work? Why is it so hard?'"
Godfrey is one of nearly 6,000 Dane County residents who in 2006 experienced some form of homelessness, according to the last annual accounting, produced in July 2007 by the city of Madison. About 3,500 people, including 900 children, passed through the emergency shelter system. Another 2,500 lived in transitional or treatment housing.
Myriad local agencies like Porchlight struggle to assist various segments of the homeless population. Nearly all have lengthy wait lists, compounding the anxiety of people in desperate situations.
A countywide consortium of 30 service providers has developed a 10-year plan to end homelessness here. But many providers believe the problem may get even worse.
Madison police, alarmed by what they call a growing predator population of homeless males, are zeroing in on the issue. There have been problems at Brittingham Park, surges in petty crime and a rise in general disorder. And some have suggested that last week's stabbing death of a 31-year-old man on South Park Street could have been a random crime committed by a transient.
"We're basically doing case management on a daily basis," says Lt. Joe Balles. "I'm talking about the homeless male population, because they're the ones who are causing problems."
But many homeless individuals resist efforts to connect them to services. And even when help is wanted, it's often hard to come by.
"A lot of times [the county] doesn't want to put a dime into these guys because they're not county residents," Balles complains. "It's very frustrating."
And even the police are challenged by troublemakers who may be more in need of human services than punishment. "It makes it hard to keep your sensitivity," he says. "We want to be caring, but at the same time, I don't necessarily want to be hospitable."
Most homeless residents are invisible to the public because they work during the day and sleep in the shelters at night. Homelessness doesn't always mean living on the street. Some homeless people live in motels, others in cars. Still others shack up with relatives and friends.
And then there are a significant number of people on the edge of homelessness. They have homes, but rely heavily on voucher and meal programs and other support services. Or, like Godfrey, they live in transitional housing.
Godfrey first found himself facing the prospect of homelessness in 2003, when he was drinking heavily. When he lost his apartment, he lived off the charity of friends.
"I was staying on people's porches or setting up a tent in someone's backyard," he says. "When those opportunities ran out I started staying at a hotel. I was driving cab at the time, so I was making cash. I'd drive around until I had enough money to pay for the night."
Godfrey briefly got back on his feet, but in 2004 he lost his job driving cab, then his apartment and began spending his days drinking in city parks. He turned to several agencies for help and was added to the bottom of months-long wait lists.
"I lost the apartment essentially because I couldn't go look for work because I was drunk all day," he says. "It's as simple as that."
By the time he was booted from his second apartment, he'd alienated his friends and family. No one, it seemed, was willing to help.
"It's traumatic, because you feel like the world is turning its back on you," he says. "I went to Dane County Mental Health and told them my situation and was essentially told, 'We can't help you.'"
But Godfrey was able to break his fall, thanks to Farley House and then Porchlight. They helped him find housing and connected him with programs to stop drinking.
Madison is a tough place to find affordable housing, and the loss of single-occupancy rooms that rent for as little as $200 a month has squeezed more people into the shelters and onto the streets. Others spend a huge part of their income on housing, in constant risk of eviction.
"If something happens - the car breaks down, the kid gets sick, they get sick - and they can't work, they lose income, and that begins the spiral into homelessness," says Steven Schooler, executive director of Porchlight. "Rents and housing costs are very high relative to the rest of the state. Wage rates in the $7-to-$8-an-hour range for low-level jobs doesn't pay the rent."
And Schooler says about 40% of homeless people suffer from substance abuse and/or mental illness. "We're talking about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and, of course, depression. When you have a lot of seriously mentally ill persons without a lot of support services, what happens? They end up on the streets."
Last summer, problems with homeless males along the West Washington corridor reached the breaking point. Police received an unprecedented number of complaints about menacing panhandling, drunkenness, public urination and trespassing. In October, area business owners held a special meeting to discuss the problem.
"We're afraid, our customers are afraid," says a West Washington Avenue business owner who asked not be identified, fearing repercussions. "At first, we tried being nice, but that has ended. I mean, who wants to walk past a big posse of guys that get in your personal space and are verbally assaulting?"
But police have few tools to manage the behavior of problem transients. The case of a homeless man in his early 50s from Washington, D.C., illustrates the point.
For much of the summer, Madison police responded to complaints about the man's menacing behavior - 32 documented contacts in all. The man has spent much of his adult life in prison, but police here felt his main problem was mental illness and tried to get him institutionalized. But county mental health authorities did not support this effort, and it did not succeed.
"We knew from day one he had mental health issues," says Balles. Getting Dane County mental health authorities to agree he needed treatment was difficult.
Police issued the man dozens of citations over the summer. But it wasn't until he was arrested in October on a criminal disorderly conduct charge that county mental health authorities supported involuntary commitment.
"All of a sudden, the Dane County jail mental health staff realize this guy shouldn't be in jail," says Balles. "Well, finally the powers that be got moving and found the guy mentally incompetent. We got him committed."
But Balles says the man has since been released and has returned to the Madison area. A local tavern owner helped get him into a south-side apartment.
Police also had their hands full at Brittingham Park, where dozens of homeless men relocated after the city banned alcohol at nearby Law Park. In early September, police raided the park after it closed, rousting more than 30 men and threatening to arrest them for trespassing. But for people without homes, jail is not a bad deal.
"Giving them a trespass ticket is like a voucher for shelter and meals in the middle of winter," says Balles. "They know these [tickets] go to warrant in about 10 or 11 weeks, which is sometime in January. So they'd be able to get nine or 10 days off the street in the middle of winter and wouldn't have to worry about cold-weather housing during that time."
The shelters limit individuals to 60 nights a year, which many save for the winter months. But some people avoid shelters because they're ashamed or afraid. In shelters and on the streets, says Godfrey, the homeless are "basically preyed on by criminals, whether they're drug dealers or just guys exploiting people through the sheer will of their intimidation."
"I hate to call it a predator population, but there's really no other way to describe it," he says. "They're here, occupying the public spaces and surviving every way they can. Anywhere there is a weak spot, they're going to find it. And they're here in significant numbers. There is an increasingly criminal element that's living on West Wash, there's no question about it."
Being homeless isn't all crime and games. Often, it's just plain exhausting. Madison has 10 shelters that provide services to various homeless populations. All exceed capacity each night during the winter months and, like other services, operate with a wait list. In 2006, nearly 3,000 people were turned away due to a lack of space.
"I challenge anyone in the community who feels that all homeless people are just panhandlers who don't care to come down and serve in our drop-in shelter some night," says Schooler. "There are a lot of men down there who are trying like heck, but are facing a whole host of difficulties not of their own creation and making serious efforts to pull their life back together."
Jim Willis, who manages the Drop-In Shelter at Grace Episcopal Church, says being homeless is physically and mentally taxing. "You're always moving, trying to stay warm, find something to eat," says Willis, who has himself been homeless. "And the weather wears you down. Most guys are so tired by the time they get here they're asleep by nine."
After a while, some homeless people simply stop trying to improve their situation.
"A lot of guys are not helping themselves anymore," says Willis. "I understand we all lack something in life, but you've still got to keep trying. You can only get so far with other people's help, then you've got to go beyond that help and do it yourself."
The Drop-In Shelter is run by Porchlight, which also runs two overflow men's shelters on Wisconsin and East Washington Avenue.
Guests at the Grace Episcopal shelter on West Washington - one of three drop-in shelters for men - get two meals a day, a shower and access to laundry facilities. Those who show up drunk are subject to three-day bans. Willis announces this to the long line of men each night before the shelter opens. Many try sneaking in anyway. Willis won't ban them on cold nights, but won't admit them until they've sobered up; they have a four-and-a-half-hour window to do so before the shelter closes at 9 p.m.
"These are grown men, but sometimes you've got to realize they're not as educated, or circumstances have prevented them from moving on in life," he says. "I see guys go to work every day. They struggle, but try. Others, we need to teach them how to pull themselves up, because a lot just don't have the wits to know what to do."
Many of the men Willis sees lack basic life skills, like good hygiene and money management. There are also those who simply exploit the system. "A lot of them go to the Capitol and play cards in the basement and do nothing all day, then they come over here, eat a meal and go to sleep," he says. "That's frustrating because they're not taking care of what they need to be taking care of."
Traditionally, helping homeless people with a drug problem or mental illness has meant getting them in treatment or therapy, then into housing. But that model hasn't always worked. A new approach, to provide housing before treatment, has taken root across the country and is being seriously considered by the Dane County Homeless Service Consortium and United Way of Dane County.
"It's in its infancy in our community, but has been used by other communities very successfully," says Lisa Subeck, a program coordinator for the YWCA who works primarily with homeless women and families.
Since 2005, Porchlight Inc. and Tellurian UCAN have offered a Housing First program, funded in part by federal dollars. Last year, more than 40 people were placed in housing through the program, which employs three outreach workers who comb the streets and shelters looking for candidates.
"I work with so many people who have no income whatsoever," says Kelly Maluag, Porchlight's street-level outreach worker. Last year, Maluag placed six people into housing. "Drugs are a huge problem. The majority of those I work with have had problems with drinking or drugs. I tell them right from the beginning that they have to meet me in the middle. It's tough."
People pay rent based on their income. Those without an income live rent-free. But for many, housing is just one part of the solution. If other services aren't provided, early success may give way to future failure.
"One of the major barriers we face is that Porchlight doesn't provide mental health treatment services, nor do we provide AODA treatment services, per se," says Schooler. "Getting [this population] placed in services in the community is really tremendously difficult, particularly the services they need now, as opposed to three years from now."
A major hurdle was raised last summer when Dane County Mental Health Center closed its wait list, which is more than a year long. "What do we do? Where do we go with that?" asks Schooler. "The same thing is true of AODA treatment services." Treatment options are limited, especially for those who lack health insurance.
In recent years, funding has also shifted from shelter services to homeless prevention. The United Way of Dane County spearheaded this shift, with special focus on families, which in 2006 accounted for 41% of Madison's homeless population.
Some eviction-prevention funding is available, but demand is so high that recipients are selected through a monthly lottery system. In 2006, $865,000 was spent to prevent 2,700 evictions. Says Subeck, "Funding programs that keep people in housing is critical, because if we can keep people in housing, we'll actually save money on homeless services."
Subeck adds that Madison's lack of jobs that pay a living wage has caused significant class disparities. There is little middle ground between white-collar and service-industry jobs.
"People need to be able to live in our community and not be required to have a master's degree to survive," she says. "It's not only having the jobs, but providing people with the training they need to get into some of these jobs. We don't have much of a blue-collar middle class, and that's unusual for a city our size."
On a recent Saturday, about two dozen men were keeping warm in the basement of the state Capitol, a popular hangout. Among them was Daniel Greengo, a 56-year-old Milwaukee native who has been homeless for 12 years.
His shoes were wet, his teeth rotten and a hernia made him walk with obvious pain. He spends his days in either the Capitol basement or the Central Library on West Mifflin Street. When the buildings close, he retreats to his small tent, which he says was virtually destroyed by December's heavy snowfall.
Greengo is at times quite lucid, weeping over his situation. But his thoughts invariably become incoherent. Asked why he is homeless, Greengo laments that he hasn't gotten a paycheck from the government for his 12 years of service as a secret agent.
"Maybe it will come tomorrow," he says. "That would be nice."
Odds are that Greengo, also suffering from a chronic lung infection, will die a homeless man. Success stories, though they happen, are rare. Willis estimates that for every 50 people who use the shelters, fewer than five overcome homelessness. Safe Haven, a Porchlight transitional-living program for those with mental illness, has a 50% success rate placing people in housing. Little tracking is done beyond this stage.
"You can go through a cycle of someone cycling through the system several times, trying to have housing and not being able to maintain, and then for some reason the light bulb goes on," says Schooler. "There are situations where it's difficult to show compassion for these individuals, but it's also very difficult to single out whom not to feel compassion for."
Meanwhile, the police expect further problems with transients, especially in warmer weather. "We have zero tolerance for menacing behaviors," says Balles. "We will arrest them, because if we don't, we are enabling. We have to send the message that this isn't the most hospitable place to be."
With more than a year of sobriety under his belt, Godfrey has less than a year left at Porchlight before he'll move into his first private apartment in nearly three years. Though looking forward to that day, he is circumspect: "You never know for sure how this stuff will work out."
Godfrey says his experience underscores the value of reaching out to people in need - "anything to let them know they matter, that they're not refuse or totally forgotten. Some people are never going to overcome that feeling, but I think a lot of people, once they get people rooting for them, they've got a huge leg up."
Dealing with it
Homeless shelters in Madison
Dane County Parent Council Hope House
4605 Odana Rd.; 608-275-6740, ext. 160
Six beds, single women with children
Domestic Abuse Intervention Services Inc. (DAIS) 24-hour crisis hotline, 608-251-4445
25 beds, single women and families
Interfaith Hospitality Network
1121 University Ave.; 608-294-7998
14 beds, families
Drop-In Shelter Grace Episcopal
116 W. Washington Ave.; 608-255-2960
50 beds, single men
St. John's Lutheran
322 E. Washington Ave.; 608-257-2534
Year-round overflow shelter; 30 beds, single men
West Washington Avenue & South Henry Street; 608-257-2534
Temporary seasonal overflow shelter while the Methodist Church on Wisconsin Avenue undergoes renovations; 50 beds, single men
Porchlight Inc. Safe Haven
1738 Roth St.; 608-241-9447
14 beds, single men and women with mental illness
Port St. Vincent
221 S. Baldwin St.; 608-442-9878
8 beds, single men
The Salvation Army Shelter
630 E. Washington Ave.; 608-256-2321
62 beds, families; 30 beds, single women
The Salvation Army Warming House
630 E. Washington Ave.; 608-256-2321
Seasonal shelter; 15 beds, families
Just the facts
Percentage of homeless families in Madison that sought shelter due to the threat or fear of violence: 36
Percentage of families homeless longer than six months: 63
Percentage of homeless families headed by a single female: 81
Number of single men in 2006 who spent the night at shelters operated by Porchlight Inc.: 1,481
Percentage of homeless men who reported issues with mental illness or alcohol 27 and 41, and other drugs: respectively
Number of persons age 62 or older who stayed in a shelter: 44
Percentage of homeless single men who were veterans: 14
Percentage of sheltered persons who were African American: 76
Source: 2006 Annual Report of Homeless Served in Dane County.