It's two days before the end of December, and the Dane County Salvation Army's homeless shelter for families is dealing with a crisis. At the last minute, a Madison landlord has backed out of a deal to rent to a family slated to leave the shelter. Another family was supposed to move into the vacated room. No other rooms are available.
Services coordinator Sarah Gillmore drops her other work and gets on the phone. She can't find the landlord. She knows that the handful of other shelters in Madison are also full. But she calls around anyway to see if, by chance, space may have opened up somewhere overnight.
The situation is dire, but not unusual.
"Shelter capacity in Madison is way under the need," says Major Paul Moore, the group's Dane County coordinator. "It's an ongoing issue."
The Salvation Army accommodates 18 families at its onsite shelter and handles referrals to the YWCA shelter, which houses 11 families. The agency also coordinates the countywide voucher program, through which a few more families are housed in area motels. And it runs an emergency drop-in warming house, which serves up to 14 people (about four families) sleeping on mats in a hallway.
"In the average week," says Gillmore, "we turn away eight to 12 people, including children, from the warming house." In 2008, the overflow warming house provided 3,100 shelter nights.
Surprisingly, Moore does not see the downward turn in the economy as a factor in shelter demand. "We serve a low-income underculture, which for the last 10 years has been bigger than what the system can handle," he says. "We were always full in 2007 and, except for a few weeks in February, have always been full in 2008.
Mounting motel costs, along with fewer available motel rooms and fairly stagnant funding, account for a decrease in the total number of families served. Most families consist of women age 25 or younger with small children, about half under 5.
"About 40% are new to Madison," says Moore. "They come from everywhere - from small towns, where there is no opportunity, and big cities, where it is unsafe. They usually have some money to establish themselves, can't find a job, and end up in the shelter."
There are also a substantial number of clients fleeing domestic-abuse situations, notes Gillmore.
One emblem of the strain faced by those seeking emergency shelter in Dane County is the phone message played for callers to the family shelter. They are told the shelter system is full, and that they must be screened by staff in order to be eligible for the waiting list.
"The shelter receives many more requests than it can accommodate," the recording says. "Your call may not be returned."
They are told about the warming house, where overnight space is allotted on a first-come, first-served basis.
In practice, however, the staff often prioritizes the most critical situations, giving preference to families with infants. "It's like a triage unit," says Moore.
Those turned away are given dinner, bus tickets, access to a phone and information about day services in Madison. Just not a place to sleep. Gillmore says they are encouraged to call "anyone in their life" who might take them in, even for a single night.
Sometimes, people wind up staying in their cars. Or they go to apartments of relatives or friends.
"Of course it hurts me when we have to turn a family away," says Gillmore. "The second it doesn't hurt I will get out of this field. I will know I have become hardened."
Gillmore says her biggest goal as a counselor is to teach homeless clients how to take care of themselves and become independent.
"Sometimes this seems insurmountable," she says. "My stomach drops when I think about the families we serve who are generationally homeless. People have grown up seeing their moms and their moms' moms give up in a crisis. They don't know that housing is a human right, that they deserve more than to be evicted, that they have a voice. Life in a shelter became normal for them as children. They see it as acceptable."
Gillmore is optimistic about a new United Way-funded program called Rapid Rehousing, designed to teach low-income parents how to stay in their homes. The Salvation Army is one of three social-service agencies that will coordinate the program, working with up to 45 families at a time.
The program, set to begin accepting clients in February, will pay for initial housing costs - the first month's rent, security deposit and utility start-up costs. Over the course of a year, Rapid Rehousing will gradually pay less as clients pay more, while a case manager helps them learn or relearn skills they need to get by on their own.
As for the family whose housing plans suddenly fell through, Gilmore spends the better part of a workday to make things right. She arranges for another family that had been promised rental housing to move in earlier, opening up space for the new family that has been promised a place to stay. The family that had been about to move was allowed to stay, while its apartment search continues.
One crisis down, no telling how many more to come.
"It can become so daunting," says Gillmore. "There's so much need, not enough resources, and everyone is desperate."