Understanding the homeless Print
Fonder Ponders
Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

Fonder Ponders column by Jackson Fonder

I bundled up on a very cold and windy evening last Tuesday night and met some new friends in the parking lot of First Methodist Church in downtown Madison.

Dennis, Daniel, and Sam were kind enough to invite me to help in their efforts to serve the homeless. This is what they do every Tuesday night as part of "Friends of the State St. Family."

They were well prepared with a couple of backpacks loaded up with clothing, blankets, and sleeping bags, along with a wagon and cooler filled with sandwiches.

Engaging the homeless

We set out on foot down State St. for a two-hour journey, stopping along the way to engage people in conversation. Daniel and Sam took the lead, initiating contact by just asking questions, "how are you doing?", "do you need a bite to eat?", and "where are you planning on sleeping tonight?"

We met Lisa and John, a couple who had all of their possessions in a shopping cart and were setting up their bed for the night on the sidewalk. They were grateful for the sandwiches, sleeping bag, and hand-warmers that we gave them.

They appeared to be in their late 30s or early 40s. John was recovering from a medical condition and was hoping to find work soon. Lisa struggles with mental health issues. (While about six percent of the general population suffers from severe mental health conditions, 20 to 25 percent of the homeless suffer from severe mental health issues, according to government studies.)

Talking with Carl

We walked for another five minutes and ran into Carl, a big man with an even bigger smile. One of the men in our group, Dennis, had known Carl for a long time. They embraced and exchanged lots of smiles and laughter and a couple of stories.

Carl told us that he didn't need anything, but that he would take one of the sandwiches with him because he knew that he would run into someone who needed it. When we asked him where he was sleeping, he told us that he found a place indoors to sleep for the night.

I just smiled as I looked him over, realizing that he had no hat or gloves and was wearing a light jacket. At least he would be warm tonight. Before we went our separate ways, we gathered in an informal circle and one of us said a prayer for Carl. He really liked that.

Meeting Mable

We also came across Mable, an elderly woman in her 70s who had her fort already built on the sidewalk just waiting to settle in for the night. We sort of knocked on her makeshift door and left her with a heavy blanket, a sandwich, and a scarf. She smiled and thanked us.

Sam and Daniel shared with us that this was the first time they have been able to engage Mable in a conversation. She was normally very fearful of men. (Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women.)

Living on the streets

We talked with a man who has leukemia; a woman hiding from her ex-husband; and a young man who was trying to stay sober. Almost all of them were going to sleep on the street tonight.

Home is defined as, "the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household." The people I met and volunteered with Tuesday night were a family of sorts. They look out for each other, get to know what's happening in each other's lives, and have a community of their own, but living on the streets is not the same as having a home.

Current estimates say around 2,000 men, women, and children are homeless on any given day in Madison.

Helping the homeless

Catholic Charities is partnering with Bethel Lutheran Church to run a winter day shelter in downtown Madison, and next year we will be running a permanent homeless day resource center to help address the problems that can cause homelessness such as addiction, mental health issues, or finding a stable job.

We'll have services like showers, laundry facilities, and will provide healthy meals during the day. Each day, we'll help homeless men, women, and children find the resources they need to get off the street and find a real place to call home.

If you want to volunteer in these efforts, please contact Derrick Smith, our director of strategic planning & special projects, at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or at 608-826-8113.

Jackson Fonder is president and CEO of Catholic Charities Madison. Catholic Charities helps nearly 30,000 people in need in the 11 counties of the Diocese of Madison. Visit www.ccmadison.org for more information.