Experiencing homelessness, Wisconsin winter and COVID-19

By Maya Cherins


As I was sipping my $5 dark roast cup of coffee and chomping down on my chocolate croissant on State Street, a woman experiencing homelessness approached me. Tears ran down her face as she began to tell me that she was pregnant and needed money for transportation. She continued to make her case and I handed her $20 to buy a Greyhound bus ticket.

Madison, WI is home to over 30,000 college students and over 3,000 houseless individuals. While houselessness has always been palpable in Dane County, it is imperative that we address the increase in poverty and housing insecurity as of March 2020, when the Coronavirus pandemic hit. 

As of July, the rates of COVID-19 infection among unhoused people was low, given the measures taken by community organizations and the individuals themselves. 

Over the summer, shelters were available with limitations, so many houseless folks chose to remain outside in tents while the weather was enjoyable. Jimmy White, a man experiencing homelessness in Madison, states: “I love being outdoors. We’re trying to make it a home. The homeless community is pretty small. Everybody pretty much knows everybody. This is the safer way to quarantine if you really think about it.”

While outdoor quarantining was somewhat pleasant, it tended to be less hygienic as there was a major lack of access to clean water, soap and sanitary products. As the number of unhoused people sleeping outside has increased, the Porchlight — a Madison-based nonprofit serving the houseless community — has been vigilant. Their outreach team has been working to deliver supplies, as well as install handwashing stations and portable toilets across the city. 

The hardest part of the Coronavirus pandemic for the houseless community has been the lack of access to food. Normally, they rely on pedestrians supplying food and drinks, as well as being able to walk inside a store to purchase an inexpensive meal. With businesses closing and pedestrians being cautious around strangers, access to meals has been a challenge. 

Luckily, two shelters, The Beacon and Porchlight, have remained open to provide services and safe spaces for houseless communities. Porchlight, Inc. “strives to reduce homelessness in Dane County by collaborating with the community to provide shelter, affordable housing, and supportive services that eliminate barriers and empower the individuals and families [they] serve.”

While normally Porchlight provides meals, shelter and housing programs, COVID-19 makes everything a bit more tricky. As of the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, Porchlight’s Safe Haven day shelter has reduced guest hours and limited new clients. As all Porchlight case managers are working remotely, Porchlight is also hiring. There are many calls to action on the Porchlight website for community support and engagement to uplift Madison’s growing houseless community.  

As nonprofit and community organizations are scrambling to provide services and programming, so is the city of Madison. In collaboration with the Dane County Continuum of Care, the city of Madison has created $3 million in funding for service providers to support housing and shelter efforts for low-income and unhoused communities. 

Aside from needing shelter and a roof over one’s head, houseless children are in need of places to continue their education. As of March 2019, there were 3,269 houseless children enrolled in the Madison school district. Helping those children receive an equitable and sustainable education is key, yet challenging, as local shelters and public spaces have closed indefinitely. The Beacon, Porchlight and the Road Home Dane County are all continuously working to find solutions for children and families, especially as COVID-19 worsens into the winter in Wisconsin. 

To provide help and support to Madison unhoused communities, check out Porchlight’s “Ways to Give” page for donation and volunteer opportunities.

Beyond providing direct support to Madison organizations, understand how to communicate with houseless people. State Street is constantly occupied by unhoused folk, and there are better ways to engage with these communities rather than ignoring them.

If you don’t have money to offer, ask what else you could do. Do they need a meal? Clothes? Sanitation products?

Continue to think about ways to help the houseless community. Madison gets freezing in the winter. These communities could benefit from hand warmers, scarfs, a hat or a hot cup of coffee. 

Say hi. Even if you can’t give anything, acknowledging and respecting all peoples’ humanity is crucial.  



Maya Cherins (she/her) is the Managing Editor for Bell Magazine. She is a junior at UW–Madison studying Gender and Women Studies and Community and Nonprofit Leadership with a certificate in Global Health. When she’s not playing with her dogs or going on hikes, Maya is fighting for reproductive and racial justice. Let her know if you want to phonebank before Nov. 3! 

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