By Brian BB Benford
I hope that you are all well and finding joy. As I type this note, I join countless housing activists and advocates in mourning what has become of Madison. At its Tuesday, May 4th meeting, the Madison Common Council failed to pass a budget amendment to allow the City of Madison and Dane County to purchase the old Gander Mountain/Savers building on Zeier Road in order to build a temporary men’s homeless shelter. During the meeting, I saw that most of us alders were safe at home, roof over our heads, internet, phones, food, maybe a loving, supportive family around, and here we were – talking about if we should buy a property for a men’s temporary homeless shelter.
Some of you might know about the type of work that I have done for the last thirty years. Within many community-based settings, I have served vulnerable and marginalized children, parents, families and communities. There has not been a day that has gone by during the last three decades that I was not thinking about someone facing houselessneess. Even now, with my work for the UW-Madison Odyssey Project, each day I support people frantically searching for housing security. I have never needed to read a position paper or some memo detailing the plight of being houseless in Madison. I talk to our vulnerable neighbors each day.
For years I have witnessed housing advocates, some faith-based institutions, community-based organizations, and other non-profits work tirelessly to serve our homeless neighbors. They serve with hardly any recognition and even less pay. For over 35 years, these dedicated, selfless community servants have pushed local government to respond to the growing houseless population. Under new leadership, city staff attempted to find and secure a site that could be a beautiful, transformational place of healing. Countless hours were spent and numerous sites were considered during the desperate search to find a place that had the potential to save lives. City staff worked knowing that there was no such thing as the “perfect” location because no matter where the shelter was considered, we would see the same, oftentimes racist and ignorant opposition.
I am bewildered by hearing so many say they care about homeless men because it appeared to me they were saying, “as long as if we don’t have to see or interact with them.” I have heard more contradictions over this issue, all coming across to me as putting money before people. While there was concern stated about the city not having done an economic impact assessment on the businesses around East Towne, there were no demands for an economic analysis to measure the human carnage of the men experiencing houselessness. As I witnessed feeble attempts at rationalizing racist and bigoted beliefs, it became clear to me that Madison’s collective values or morals offer little hope for these men.
I suspect that within each of our families we all have a family member that is battling either alcohol and other drug abuse or unresolved mental health issues,or both. Is there anyone out there who has never had a family member, experience being houseless in their lifetimes? If so, you are lucky. I have experienced it. Nobody wakes up at 15 and says, “Dang! Someday, I want to be homeless in Madison WI during the middle of February amid the worst public health crisis in our history.” But trauma and life happens to the best of us!
I must confess that in my lifetime I once subscribed to the misguided notion that all men can lift themselves up by their bootstraps. You know, the false, often racist narrative of the American Dream. Even though I am Black, I was spoon fed the notion that if you worked hard, played by the rules, you could achieve all the rewards of being successful. This fake dream that has become the American Nightmare for far too many vulnerable and marginalized people across this country!
In examining my own biases, I have come to realize that for decades, living in a capitalist society, homelessness in Madison, like in every major city in America, has been a growing unresolved issue. Much has been said about most Americans being just two paychecks away from the possibility of losing their homes or housing security. Perhaps less has been presented about the horrific impacts of mental illness, addiction, racism, and trauma in being instigating factors leading to homelessness among the men that we are trying to support. These men are someone’s brothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, our sons and cousins.
While I understand how some might feel as if the Zeier Rd. site could be in a more ideal location; be closer to downtown; or we should build many shelters; I would say that as a long-time family advocate, those arguments are not grounded in reality. Truth be told, the State Capitol would make the best site, but that ain’t going to happen! We had a site. We have a sustainable partnership with the county, we have community-based organizations and housing advocates with long, rich histories of helping marginalized neighbors.
Please remember when anyone asks for specifics about services, even before we have a building, it should be noted that the city nor county provides services directly. They partner with other key stakeholders, including those that are skilled in providing evidence-based programming. Many of the arguments that I have heard in opposition appeared to support all the reasons that we need wrap-around vital services,exactly in this location. The greatest need in addressing the challenges that houseless men face is shelter. All healing begins with a warm, safe, supportive place to lay your head at night.
You would have to be completely naïve to think that no matter where we –hopefully in my life-time-build a shelter, people are still going to panhandle and ask for money where they perceive there are people with disposable incomes-like by a mall, Willy St. Coop or State Street. What we should be worrying more about is, will the services be culturally competent and under one roof – a cafeteria of services. Free bus passes would be needed no matter where the location is. This should put to rest any concerns about men having to ride a bus to the Beacon or great distances to jobs and services.
As a community graced by many generous individuals and businesses, we could have come together to build a sustainable public and private partnership to make this a beautiful, transformational place of healing. Wee could have collectively built a sustainable, unique facility with public art, gardening, and other therapeutic features. Instead our shortsightedness was blinding. We as a city failed to support everyone’s right to dignity, respect, and safety. We had a site, hopefully we have the political, and more importantly, the moral will to support our neighbors soon. The clock ticked itself to death years ago. We cannot wait and we must not put more lives at risk during the pandemic and hardships in store for us in the months and winters to come.
Brian BB Benford
Alder District 6-City of Madison