Heat shelter line
Denis Smith, left, and Lionel McKey wait with other homeless men to get into the shelter at the end of a sweltering day. Photo by PAT SCHNEIDER - The Capital Times

At the end of a sweltering day, the men gather on the street, their gear in tow, about a half block from the un-air-conditioned homeless shelter where they’ll spend the night.

How did they manage on a day when the air was so thick it was hard to breathe? Like many homeless people, they’re not allowed to stay in the shelter during the day. Their strategies recall summers of years ago, when most people did not have the luxury of air-conditioned homes and workplaces.

Sitting in the shade on the grounds of the Capitol is one way the men say they keep cool. So is going down to the beach, especially one of the ones with cold showers in the beach house. Finding a public place that is air-conditioned is perhaps the most popular plan, and the Madison Public Library on Mifflin Street is a common place for homeless people to spend the day. Others ride an air-conditioned bus. The naturally cool basement of the Capitol is another favorite spot.

“The heat’s terrible. I sat in the park for four hours trying to catch a breeze,” says Denis Smith, 56, while waiting for the doors to open at the men’s drop-in shelter at Grace Episcopal Church just off the Capitol Square on West Washington Avenue. A heart attack, he adds, left him especially susceptible to the effects of hot weather. Finding enough water to drink on hot days can be a problem, too, because public water fountains are few. “A lot of people are thirsty,” says Smith, who carries a refillable bottle of water with him.

The difficulties of staying cool and avoiding heat exhaustion during hot weather are a little-noticed aspect, perhaps, of the many challenges of being homeless. But helping homeless people fare under such adverse conditions with improved facilities and services is one of the goals of a new set of recommendations now being circulated as the People’s Affordable Housing Vision by a grass-roots coalition of housing activists and users of local housing services. 

Other recommendations are: more transitional and permanent low-income housing, an expanded warming house facility at the Salvation Army for homeless families, more staff who speak Spanish and Hmong in city of Madison departments dealing with housing issues, a city grant writer for homelessness and housing issues, city and Dane County housing operations ombudsmen and more. The full list of recommendations is available online, where the public also is invited to sign a petition backing it.

The ad hoc Coalition of Supporters of the People’s Affordable Housing Vision hosted public meetings where the recommendations were developed by a shifting group of participants that included as many users of housing and homelessness services as possible, says spokeswoman Heidi Wegleitner. “Some of the recommendations involve ordinance changes, some are about funding. Some involve a good education campaign and others will involve a struggle.” Priorities will be developed as public debate on the recommendations proceeds; eventually they will be presented for action to the Madison City Council and Dane County Board.   

Wegleitner says the coalition is working to get these issues out for public debate because they are not getting adequate priority by local governments. “It really requires this kind of grass-roots effort.”

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The feasibility of installing air-conditioning at the men’s shelter at Grace Episcopal Church was investigated when the area was renovated in the 1990s, says Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight Inc., the local nonprofit agency that runs the facility. The lack of duct work in the 1960 addition to the church where the shelter is located made the cost of air-conditioning prohibitive, he says. A second shelter site at St. John’s Lutheran Church at 322 E. Washington Ave. is air-conditioned and is available for overflow from the Men’s Shelter and for guests with health problems. The People’s Vision also calls for the development of standards for shelter buildings and practices through a shelter monitoring committee and a third-party grievance procedure.

Schooler is opposed to that recommendation. “It is not a committee that is responsible for the safety and well-being of the shelter residents,” he says. “We have that responsibility.” What’s more, the shelter already meets state and city building codes and has a grievance procedure as part of its contract with Dane County, he says. Most people who stay at the shelter are satisfied, Schooler says, citing a June survey in which 84 percent of guests responding said they approved of the way the shelter is run.

There are some day facilities in Madison for homeless individuals, but most choose not to use them. Porchlight runs Hospitality House on Martin Street, which is 2½ miles away from the shelter at Grace Church. Hospitality House offers help finding housing and jobs and medical and legal assistance, but few men take advantage of the opportunity to just hang out there in air-conditioned comfort, says manager Tawanda Adams. “Our traffic comes in the winter time, but people get tired of sitting here doing nothing. They are just waiting on summer when they can go out to the park, wherever.”

Families who are homeless in Madison often spend summer days moving from one agency to another, just trying to get back on their feet, service providers say. “Most families spend time at the Job Center or other appointments. They travel a lot by bus,” says Sarah Gillmore, social services director for the Salvation Army, which operates shelters for women and families. In hot weather, “we keep saying ‘keep hydrated, use sunscreen,’ ” she says. The agency distributes sunscreen and bottles of water when they’re available. “It doesn’t stay in inventory. We’re constantly handing it out.”

The Road Home, another nonprofit agency serving homeless families, has a small space — a converted office with a couple of couches —  at its Olin Avenue headquarters where families can make a pit stop. It’s most often used in the morning before families set out on a round of appointments, says Rachel Krinsky, executive director. The Salvation Army shelter tries to help families make workable schedules by allowing them stay a bit longer in the morning, perhaps, to get to services appointments without running around too much, Gillmore says. “It’s a balancing act.”