by Samantha Haas
on Tuesday, February 16th, 2021 at 2:05pm.
It may seem unusual for an organization to ultimately wish it didn’t have to exist. But for many local groups associated with the Homeless Services Consortium of Dane County, the issue of homelessness unfortunately isn’t going away anytime soon. And as long as these groups continue to receive funding and support for their needed services, neither are they -- especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that is causing the housing gap to widen further.
Among them is The Road Home Dane County, the only agency in the county that exclusively serves homeless families with children, which believes that every child deserves a home. The nonprofit provides case management services to help these families achieve self-determined goals and affordable, stable housing.
“Since The Road Home was founded in 1999, we’ve helped thousands of families go from homelessness to housing. It takes the whole community,” said Executive Director Kristin Rucinski. The Road Home’s programs have proven successful, with over 90% of families remaining stably housed for one year or longer.
The organization, known as the Interfaith Hospitality Network of the Madison Area until 2008, began as an overflow shelter that rotated between local churches. After years of maintaining a small shelter for families, The Road Home phased out that aspect of its work in 2018 and shifted its focus to developing a dozen short-term and long-term housing programs, holistic support services, and partnerships with other related groups, such as Salvation Army, United Way, and The Playing Field childcare center.
In a typical year, The Road Home helps approximately 200 families, including 550 children, transition into housing. To put those numbers into perspective, in just one year approximately 1,865 school children were identified as homeless in Dane County. Over half of Americans are one paycheck away from being homeless, and although it’s sometimes temporary due to a job loss or medical issue, many families are considered chronically homeless. And based on data from 2018, although the population of Dane County was only 5% Black, the homeless population was 48% Black.
“The majority of families we serve are families of color. Of those, they are predominantly female-headed households,” said Development Director Peggy Halloran, who noted that the key values of The Road Home are respect and dignity for all, empowerment of those served, social justice, anti-racism, inclusiveness, and results-oriented service. “We are committed to racial justice, and with all of the disparities in housing, we help families overcome those to be fairly and equitably housed.”
Homelessness can also be a result of “current implicit or explicit bias not to rent to a family because they are Black, or not to give a loan to help on the path toward homeownership,” according to The Road Home’s website. “Systemic racism in housing in Dane County is a prevalent problem,” said Program Director Melissa Mennig. “It impacts the length of time families are homeless, and many landlords have very strict criteria around criminal backgrounds, which impacts families of color disproportionately.”
The Road Home works with families “not only to relieve the immediate crisis of homelessness, but also to build skills, resources, and relationships that set the stage for long-term success,” according to its website. Housing Program Manager Dominique Q. Christian said they know that families may also struggle with mental health or substance use and may benefit from assistance in accomplishing their goals, including going back to school or seeking therapy. “When we say holistic, we touch every part of the family’s lives,” she said.
Each family that works with The Road Home is assigned to a case manager, which asks families about their goals, identifies housing options, provides resources for employment or medical support, and monitors their progress. There is also an education specialist on staff who serves as a family’s advocate within the school system and makes sure kids are staying in school and receiving the attention and internet access they need during remote learning. About a year ago, The Road Home also added a peer support specialist who has lived experience with homelessness and can help families navigate services and address questions. Halloran said it definitely helps to build relationships and establish trust knowing that “someone is available to talk to who has gone through what you have gone through.” The number of case managers may increase now that the nonprofit has partnered with the City of Madison and Dane County for the Mainstream Voucher Program (a type of Section 8 voucher program), which will help more than 50 families with The Road Home secure affordable housing.
“We help move families into housing as quickly as possible, provide the resources, opportunities, and support they need to be successful, and break the cycle of homelessness for the children going forward,” Halloran said. That may include helping families find affordable apartments, transitional, or permanent housing, or working with landlords to secure scattered site housing in Dane County. The Road Home also owns 30 units of housing to rent to families that other landlords may not consider renting to because of a lack of solid rental history.
The Road Home partners with developers who are building mixed-income housing in the community, including the team from Stone House Development, which built the Breese, Fair Oaks Apartments, and Tailor Place (expected to open on Schroeder Road this month) developments throughout Madison. “They have opened many apartment complexes in our community successfully and believe in and are committed to affordable housing by also providing space for case managers on-site for those families,” Halloran said, noting that there are many larger 3-bedroom units well-suited for families. “All of their units and the ones we own are on transportation lines and accessible to work and shopping areas, because we want to make it convenient for the families we work with.”
Although in-person events and volunteer opportunities have been limited since the pandemic, The Road Home offers several safe ways to get involved, such as making meals for families or virtual mentoring with students. Halloran said in the warmer months there may be opportunities for volunteers to do some beautification at different sites with social distancing in place. The Road Home also holds an annual backpack and school supply drive in the fall and a holiday family sponsor program in which people can donate gift cards or toys.
Their biggest fundraiser of the year is the Homes for Families Breakfast, which typically draws over 500 people and was held virtually in 2020. The Road Home was thrilled to have met its goal of $375,000, but it is always in need of more support for its programs. In addition to providing financial gifts online, people can also drop off in-kind donations or have products from their wish-list at www.trhome.org (such as household cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and paper towels) shipped directly to The Road Home, 890 W Wingra Dr, Madison, WI 53715. For sanitary and safety purposes, they can only accept unopened items and prefer full-sized items (instead of travel-sized) when possible. Gift cards from local gas stations and grocery stores are also appreciated.
“The Road Home has excellent staff, board, and volunteers. It’s a really wonderful group of people trying to do good as much as possible by helping families directly,” Halloran said. “You can really see outcomes and the difference being made.”