Ward Harding is “not a big believer in happiness,” but he is satisfied living at Rethke Terrace, a Housing First development on Madison’s east side.
Ward Harding remembers back when things were normal.
He had a good job and a steady income. A nice three-bedroom home. Friendly neighbors. A wife and two daughters. He worked hard, cherished his family, always tried do “the right thing.” But that didn’t stop tragedy from entering his life. “I had a pretty good life, up until…,” he pauses, searching for the words, “incidents started happening.”
It began with a car accident that killed his mother. Then he lost two brothers — one died of scarlet fever, one was hit by a truck. Then his father passed away. Next, his wife was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She later died, leaving him with two daughters to raise and no family to help. He was determined to put his girls through college, and he did. “Both graduated,” he says, with pride. “But I was left with no money. I had to sacrifice.”
Harding, 86, was homeless for more than 30 years while he continued to work and support his daughters. “Going from a good life, you don’t know what homelessness is,” he says. He slept in cars, stayed in veterans shelters (he calls them “dumping grounds”) and often camped “out in the raw.” He even spent a few nights in a pet shop (owned by an acquaintance), sleeping next to “the birds and the monkeys and all that,” he recalls with a chuckle. But last year, he moved into a brand-new studio apartment at Rethke Terrace, a supportive housing complex on Madison’s east side. For the first time in decades, Harding has a home of his own.
“I’m not a big believer in happiness, but I’m satisfied here,” he says, seated in the sunlit community room on a mid-January afternoon. “This is a good concept. And there are some good people here.”
Rethke Terrace is Madison’s biggest and most ambitious step toward embracing “Housing First,” a model that aims to solve chronic homelessness by providing housing to those who need it, followed by supportive services. The $8 million, 60-unit complex opened late last summer. It was a collaborative effort, with $1.1 million in support from the city, $950,000 from Dane County and $5.4 million in federal tax credits. Heartland Housing Inc., of Chicago, and its affiliate Heartland Health Outreach, provide on-site services for residents.
Harding offers a tour of his new home, showing off the weight room, the computer lab, the administrative offices where support staff is hard at work. He opens the door of the cozy library, to reveal a neighbor seated in a plush armchair, engrossed in a book. Out back, there’s a garden that in warmer months yields fresh produce for the residents. Harding says there will be a chicken coop next year. “Whoever designed this place was smart,” he says with a smile.
But beyond the comfort and security, some residents have found community and friendships in their new homes. Harding has formed a special bond with one of his neighbors, Becky Castile. She came to Rethke in September 2016 after a fire destroyed her apartment complex, forcing her to live in her truck for eight months. It wasn’t the first time. Castile, 56, has struggled with chronic homelessness, exacerbated by bouts of depression, anxiety and addiction, for her whole life. “We’re nothing but outcasts,” she says of the homeless community. She finds strength through her faith in God — and the unconditional love of her therapy dog, a tiny Chihuahua named C.W., short for Cottonwood. Seated with Harding in the community room, Castile says she’s thankful for her new home, but she worries about the people still out on the streets. “We need about 10 more of these,” she says of her new home.
Although Castile knows the housing is permanent, she sometimes fears she could be back out on the streets. But every day, things are getting better. “It’s a big relief to come here after being out there,” she says, holding C.W. close. “It’s almost like we can rest now.”
Housing First concept first tried: 1988 in Los Angeles
Long-term retention rate: Up to 98 percent
Amount a chronic homeless person costs a community, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness: $30,000-$50,000
Annual cost for individuals in permanent housing with supportive services: $20,000
Madison’s next Housing First project: Madison Family Supportive Housing, a 45-unit complex at 7933 Tree Lane