Monique Metcalf couldn’t sleep at night when she first moved to her north-side Madison apartment, she recalls. It was too quiet.
Missing on Vera Court were the shouting matches, the smashing glass, and the gunfire that punctuated the night in her old Milwaukee neighborhood, she says. It took some getting used to.
Six months later, Metcalf, 40, is comfortable with the relative quiet, and she’s happy in a three-bedroom apartment she shares with her two daughters, ages 14 and 4. But the road to peace and quiet has had its bumps. Metcalf and her daughters spent three months in a homeless shelter program before moving in November into housing owned and managed by The Road Home Dane County, a Madison nonprofit organization.
Buying real estate last year to provide affordable housing for low-income families was a big move for The Road Home, an agency previously known as Interfaith Hospitality Network. So far, officials say, it’s working well.
Founded in 1997, the agency works with communities of faith to provide shelter to the homeless and to help those families get housing and stay in it. The organization’s goal in owning its own property is to give clients worn down by homelessness a stable base from which to change the circumstances that led them there.
“Every time I go over there, it’s literally a dream come true. Fifteen families who would have left shelter for homelessness are in housing and creating their lives,” says Rachel Krinsky, executive director of The Road Home.
Shelter provides a safe place to bed down, but it’s difficult to get a foothold to a more stable life. “People in shelter are in crisis mode,” says Kristin Rucinski, the on-site case manager at The Road Home’s new housing on Vera Court.
Metcalf says her time in The Road Home’s shelter program was a difficult period, despite the kind efforts of those involved. The family was uprooted every week, and every new place meant new people to meet and work with, sometimes daily. Under the program, local congregations host homeless families in their buildings and members take turns preparing meals for them.
The constant change was a particular challenge for Metcalf, who says post-traumatic stress disorder and depression make it tough for her to cope with new people, and especially crowds. And despite the obvious goodwill of her hosts, Metcalf says she encountered a few people who said “things I didn’t think appropriate. Just because you are homeless doesn’t mean you’re not a person.”
Metcalf left Milwaukee, she says, because the street life that filled the night was jeopardizing her family. Her teenage daughter was being pulled toward the wrong crowd, and she largely confined her younger child to the house out of fear for her safety. Metcalf came to Madison, where she stayed briefly with a friend before entering The Road Home’s shelter program. With assistance from the organization, the family was referred to treatment for physical and mental health problems. Metcalf says she is impressed with how The Road Home delivered on its promises of assistance. “They helped me, they helped me a lot,” she says in her bright and tidy apartment. With treatment, she is calmer, and learning how to cope with crowds. She is working toward a general equivalency diploma, she says, and would like one day to work in health care.
Coming up with the money to finance the housing program was a big undertaking and remains one for The Road Home. The organization in 2008 launched “Housing and Hope,” a capital campaign to raise $4.5 million to buy and renovate 30 apartments and to create an endowment called the “Forever Fund.” The fund, administered by the Madison Community Foundation, is intended to cover the gap between rental revenue and the cost of providing housing to ensure that the units remain affordable.
The campaign raised about $2.7 million before the recession hit, bringing fundraising temporarily to a halt, says Krinsky. The agency proceeded with the first phase of its program, purchasing two apartment buildings, 15 units total, at 714 and 802 Vera Court in November from Future Madison, a nonprofit organization that operates low-income housing at the Northpointe, Eastpointe and Wexford Ridge apartment complexes. The capital campaign is picking up again, with a $100,000 grant from Madison Community Foundation in May, but another $1.1 million is needed to reach The Road Home’s goal to buy another 15 apartments elsewhere in the city.
Despite a stubborn neighborhood rumor, life in The Road Home’s housing is not a free ride. The program is aimed at tenants who may be unable to get housing elsewhere because of poor credit or rental histories, and it is designed to hold them accountable but not set them up to fail, says Krinsky. Tenants pay a minimum of $200 per month or 30 percent of household income, but if a family finds itself without income, it is possible to defer rent payment without repercussions until the family begins receiving income and can start paying the back rent.
“The families living there for the most part are working hard to honor the rent,” she says. When a problem crops up, tenants can work with Rucinski to resolve it, and learn new skills in the process. “If we weren’t having any challenges, I’d say we did a poor job of picking the families,” says Krinsky. “We can take chances that the average landlord can’t afford to take.”
Families who are accepted at Housing and Hope apartments have to make a commitment to improve their lives. Many are working toward high school equivalency diplomas, repairing their credit ratings, gaining job skills, bettering their parenting skills, or getting treatment for mental illness or addiction, says Rucinski. Families may stay until the youngest child is 18, but the goal is for families to stay four to six years and then move on to stable housing to “open a spot for someone coming out of shelter,” she says.
About 30 percent of tenants are working, says Rucinski, and many are on W-2, the state welfare program that generally requires some kind of employment. There are four two-parent families, one headed by a single father, and the rest by single mothers. There are 40 children in the 15 units. Many of the families, Rucinski points out, are from Wisconsin, some from Dane County. “Sometimes people don’t seem to realize that their own can be homeless,” she says. “This program is helping them too.”
Rucinski has been working with the tenants to help them get to know each other, “so they can count on one another.” Participation in a recent potluck supper was good and a community effort is planned to lay wood chips for an outdoor play structure soon to be installed. Becoming acquainted also helps neighbors deal better with such common issues as loud music. “They feel comfortable knocking on the door and saying ‘turn it down,’ ” Rucinski says. To more formally introduce themselves to the neighborhood, the agency will hold a ribbon-cutting in the neighborhood on July 17.
Case management is a key component, says Future Madison executive director Doug Strub. “That’s a huge step that I think has helped them succeed.” he says of The Road Home. His organization has rented to former clients of the agency. “They’ve always done a good job working with their residents. We’ve seen their success.”
In addition to putting people in touch with a wide variety of services, Rucinski helps with such basic resources as bus tickets, or small extras such as movie passes. The prospect of going to a movie with her daughter clearly appeals to Metcalf, who muses on whether she might be able to handle the crowd at the very first showing on a Saturday afternoon.
It’s gratifying, Rucinski reflects later, to see families find their way. “It’s beautiful to watch. The volunteers at the shelter only see families in crisis — they never get to see the end of the story. I’m blessed to see the families grow and reach stability.”