When Kenneth Payne saw a man doubled over at the day shelter on East Washington Avenue, he knew right away he was a veteran.
"One of the things we're taught to do, when we're stressed out real bad, is get in the squat position, tuck your head in and breathe," says Payne, who is a Vietnam War veteran.
Payne understands the stress of being homeless. He was briefly on the streets in December, after being discharged from the VA hospital while waiting on a disability check. He had to spend a few nights at the men's overnight shelter at Grace Episcopal Church. It horrified him.
"I didn't sleep. I couldn't get a decent shower. There was nowhere to put my clothing," says Payne, who is trying to drum up support for a local shelter dedicated to veterans. "I can't see how a person that's fought for his country, and comes back to America, can be put in a place like that."
Payne worries that conditions at the Grace shelter are especially problematic for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. It's underground, with few exits. The men sleep in an open room, where people constantly come and go.
"An atmosphere like that will cause [a veteran] to have a flashback, which may cause real violent outbursts," Payne says. "It could cause people to get really hurt bad. When you get into a flashback like that, you're not aware of who is around you. You're taught to react. You're not taught to make sense of it."
Marybeth Urbin, the homeless program coordinator with the VA hospital in Rockford, Ill., says federal funding is available to operate a veterans' shelter in Madison. But as of yet, no providers have qualified to operate it. "We've not had anyone that would meet the safety standards."
Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight, says his agency was able to use to some VA funds for a transitional housing facility on Spring Street. But, he says, Porchlight had to spend upwards of $100,000 to meet the VA's strict building, alarm and safety standards. It also requires a full-service commercial kitchen.
"It's not cheap," he says. "It's a very challenging grant process."
Milwaukee and Chicago both have dedicated shelters for veterans. Urbin says, "There are homeless veterans in the Madison area. Do they have special needs? I think so. When we talk about returning military from the current wars, they come back with different mental health issues, physical disabilities and other issues that may lead them to become homeless."
Nationally, homelessness is common among veterans. A 2011 one-night survey found 67,495 homeless veterans, including 607 in Wisconsin. A survey in Dane County in January 2012 found 56 homeless veterans.
Payne fears what might happen if veterans don't get their own shelter here. "We have 40 to 30 veterans in the shelter," he says. "At any given time, these guys could snap and kill everybody in there."