I met Shamiaa Stewart when she graciously agreed to publicly tell her story of homelessness, which spanned eight years of her early adult life. Although she’s just one person, as a single working mom she’s the face of homelessness in Dane County, where around half of all homeless folks have at least one job and the overwhelming majority are families (this one floored me—of Dane County’s 3,500 people experiencing homelessness each year, nearly half of them are children. Madison Metropolitan School District alone identified 1,414 homeless kids in its schools last year.) It was difficult to find someone willing to put themselves out there like this for various reasons, but Shamiaa felt strongly that sharing her story could help others in her position. We took our coffee to go and sat in my car for about an hour, where we’d have some peace and privacy. I have to admit that later, when I saw Todd Maughan‘s photos of Shamiaa for this spread, I felt a surge of exhilaration. She doesn’t look like someone worn down from a lifetime of unimaginable struggle. She looks triumphant.
In the end, my editor chose to break this cover story into two parts. One is this profile on Shamiaa, which also highlights the critical work of the United Way, The Road Home, YWCA of Dane County and other members of the Homeless Services Consortium of Dane County, as well as MMSD’s TEP program identifying and serving homeless kids in school, and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s thoughts on aggravating factors such as low minimum wage and lack of affordable housing.
The second story is called Visibly Unsettled, focusing on Madison’s downtown homeless—arguably the most visible of Madison’s 3,500 homeless folks, despite being only about one percent of its total. Organizations such as Porchlight and Housing Initiatives, Inc. are working tirelessly to connect these people with services as well as build more supported, affordable housing. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin also weighed in about ways the city and the county are partnering to create more affordable housing, and Downtown Madison Inc.’s Susan Schmitz argued that downtown business owners and residents are more than willing to be part of the solution, despite characterizations of the opposite.
A lot of things stayed with me long after this story wrapped. I hadn’t realized how many kids were affected, nor was I fully aware just how many local people and organizations are focused on eradicating homelessness (that was the hardest part, I think; there was simply no way to do justice to them all, and a lot of efforts don’t appear in these articles). Perhaps most profound for me personally was the experience of meeting Erik Pettersen, a chemist who suffered 15 years in and out of homelessness before finally finding a home, stability and safety through Housing Initiatives. He had just stood in front of a group of strangers and shared some pretty intimate details of his struggle. After, I introduced myself and asked him for his contact information to follow up—something I’ve done (like every other writer or reporter) a gazillion times over the past ten years, amassing a database of source phone numbers and email addresses. But Erik didn’t give me either of those things, not at first.
He gave me his street address.
—Maggie Ginsberg is an award-winning freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin