It was snowing last December when Kevin Brooks, then 39, entered a homeless shelter for the first time. It was just a few days after he took a plea agreement to be on probation for the next four years.
Unable to find housing near his family in Marinette County, Brooks was called back to Madison by the probation office. He expected to be confined inside a Dane County halfway house. His probation officer had different plans for him.
"The first words out of her mouth were, 'Did you bring winter clothes with you?' I was like, 'No, I'm going to a halfway house, what do I need winter clothes for?'" Brooks remembers. "She said, 'Oh no, I'm putting you in a homeless shelter.'"
"He seemed a little quiet, a little put off about how he got there," remembers David Gegenhuber, a homeless man who met Brooks his first day in the shelter, run in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church off the Capitol Square. "Myself and another one of our guys saw him in the morning having breakfast, and started talking to him, and tried to find out what he needed. We had already been in the system long enough to have some ideas of how to help him. He was a little bit confused."
Adds Gegenhuber: "What amazed all of us is that they dump people who are on probation in the shelter system."
Porchlight, the nonprofit that runs the Grace shelter, and the Department of Corrections have no formal relationship. However, the two do have deep and often problematic ties. John Miller, offender reentry resource specialist at Madison Area Urban Ministry, estimates that one in four men in the Madison shelter system are on probation or parole. The Department of Corrections depends on homeless shelters to house people who have nowhere else to go. The restrictions placed on offenders, combined with the unruly shelter atmosphere, make it difficult for some to readjust, Miller says. Brooks has struggled in the system, twice getting sent back to the county jail.
"Alcohol is plentiful, drugs are plentiful, it's a red light district. It's not good," Miller says of the homeless shelters. "The odds are stacked against them."
Probationers end up in Dane County shelters for a variety of reasons. Brooks had been living with his twin boys and their mother in Dane County, when she accused him of taking pictures of her while she was sleeping. He claimed she was awake. Brooks agreed to take a plea agreement for sexual assault. The sentencing judge granted him permission to serve his probation in Marinette County, where he has family.
"The judge actually thanked me for taking the plea agreement because it was a screwed-up case," Brooks says. "It was her word against mine, but I'm the one with the bad reputation."
However, local ordinances up north prevented him from staying with his mother, who lives near a playground, elementary school and church. He was forced to return to Madison.
At the time, the halfway house for sex offenders in the basement of the probation office on Odana Road was full, so Brooks' officer sent him to the Grace shelter.
Miller says that homelessness due to legal entrapment is common. "Some [offenders] have mental health issues, some of them aren't from here [or] don't know anybody from here, and they have nowhere to go, so they end up in the shelter. Some of them do have family here, but they can't go back home because of the things they did. They burned their bridges...now they're stuck."
Living in a shelter can sometimes make it difficult to meet probation conditions. Offenders must check in with their agents at regular times or face the prospect of being sent back to jail.
Says Miller: "POs want to know exactly where they're at every day." The difficulties presented by these restrictions only increase when combined with the instability of homelessness.
"If the PO sends them to the shelter they have no other recourse; they don't have anywhere else to go," says Miller. "And when you wake up every day at 5 o'clock, you're still in the same boat you were in the night before. You have the same clothes on, you have no resource to get money, you don't have bus tickets, you can't travel."
Lance Wiersma, regional chief of the state Department of Corrections' Division of Community Corrections, defends agents who send their probationers to the shelter. He says probation officers try to help offenders find housing if needed. "Sometimes, there are no immediate options, or all other housing options have been exhausted," Wiersma says. "The shelter may be suggested as an immediate but temporary resource."
Neither Porchlight nor the Department of Community Corrections keeps statistics on the percentage of offenders residing in homeless shelters or on the impact this environment has on recidivism. Porchlight shelters operate on a first come, first served basis without respect to criminal status.
Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight, says his organization does not offer any extra services or supervision for individuals released from the Department of Corrections.
Through the revolving door
Despite being thrown into the unfamiliar shelter system, Brooks managed to find a community. Through the winter and into the spring, he worked hard in his new community, volunteering both in the day and night shelters.
"I was volunteering 14 and a half hours a day," remembers Brooks. "I was doing something productive. I wasn't causing trouble, I wasn't out drinking, I wasn't partying."
Every morning he woke up at 4:30 to help the Porchlight staff make breakfast. He spent days supervising the computer room at the warming shelter on East Washington before returning to Grace to cook dinner.
"As much as he's gotten himself into trouble, he does have experience working with people," says his friend Gegenhuber. "He has a certain presence that people take to."
But in this shelter system, Brooks ultimately ran afoul of his probation conditions -- twice. The first time was for using his truck, without his parole officer's permission, to ferry people and food back and forth to the night and day shelters. For that, he ended up in jail for another 66 days. When he got out, he was placed in a halfway house and found a full-time job at Home Depot.
But he lost that job when he got sent back to jail after clashing with his case manager. Miller is not surprised that Brooks has had a tough time meeting the conditions of his probation in the shelter system. Those being paroled simply need more help readjusting and getting their lives back together.
"You need help. Not Band-Aid help, but real help," Miller says. "This is humanity we're talking about. You've got to have room for redemption."