Sarah Ceponis: More families are finding stable housing in Dane County

November 30, 2018

The first time I volunteered at The Beacon, the homeless day resource center in Madison, I tried to coax a highly agitated toddler into reading a book together. She climbed into my lap, hit me and grabbed the book.

Her family had been experiencing homelessness on and off for her entire life. She had come from the shelter that morning, where she stayed amid some of the 143 families now experiencing homelessness in Dane County.

It is difficult to comprehend the trauma that homelessness inflicts on a person, but especially heartbreaking to imagine its effects on a toddler. Data tells us children experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to repeat a grade, twice as likely to go hungry, and four times as likely to get sick. Homelessness equates with trauma, instability, poor health and missed educational opportunities.

And yet, here in Dane County, we are reversing these trends. We not only have a theoretical answer to the problem — the solution to homelessness is affordable housing — but we are putting it into action. With investment from the city of Madison, Dane County, United Way of Dane County, myriad philanthropic supporters and local nonprofits, we’ve seen a remarkable decline in family homelessness here. Based on our annual count of people staying in shelters, cars and outdoors during a single night in July, family homelessness has decreased more than 50 percent in Dane County since 2014.

The number of children in our community without a place to sleep at night has gone down by half. This is widely attributed to our embrace of the “Housing First” approach, which prioritizes moving people into safe, affordable housing.

Tree Lane is our community’s latest — and largest — progress toward this goal. In June, 45 families made the move from unstable living to permanent homes. Over 100 children, with just this one change, increased their chances of staying healthy this flu season, of eating a nutritious meal at the end of day, of developing strong friendships, of graduating from high school.

The odds of long-term stability for these families is an incredible 8 in 10. Since implementing Housing First programs in our community, we have consistently exceeded an 80 percent stability rate (the national standard for Housing First success). And in the context of Tree Lane, this is especially important. The vast majority of families who have moved into Tree Lane will remain stably housed and be stabilized in many others aspects of their lives by this time next year.

The hard work of families to overcome the barriers that pushed them into homelessness is largely what creates Housing First success. Service providers and funders are part of the success rate, too, as is the larger community. The neighborhoods we shape, and the relationships we build, have the potential to make or break our progress. By going the extra mile, extending the extra hand, seeing past perceived differences, and believing in each other, we as a community can make our Housing First success rate 9 in 10, or better yet 10 in 10. Together, we can.

A few weeks ago, I dropped in at some new apartments built on Madison’s East Side to house families moving out of shelter. A young girl came over and sat down at the table where I was helping with crafts. She carefully started choosing pipe cleaners and construction paper. She looked up at me and smiled, and said, “Help?” as she held up Elmer’s glue.

I recognized her: My small feisty friend from The Beacon. Her family had a home now. She had a support system, a launching pad and, best of all, a smile. I reached for her glue, and she took my hand.

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