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Dane County

Cambridge social worker speaks out on countywide homelessness

If hired, it's envisioned that the resource coordinator's early tasks would include identifying the doubled up homeless population countywide, data about which is now elusive

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A Cambridge social worker this week joined in a conversation about how Madison and Dane County might better serve homeless people who are “doubled up,” living with friends or family rather than in a shelter.

Kristin Aasen-Gowan, a social worker with both the Cambridge School District and the Cambridge Area Resource Team (CART) told a joint Madison-Dane County committee that almost all of the Cambridge school children who families are currently identified as being homeless are “doubled up.”

Such families don’t have as ready access to services as those at a shelter, and often live outside the radar screen of social workers, Dane County and Madison officials and speakers like Aasen-Gowan said at a nearly two-hour long virtual listening session on May 3.

The focus of the listening session before the City-County Homeless Issues Committee was the proposed hiring of a full-time doubled-up resource coordinator, whose salary is envisioned to be split between the city and the county and whose coverage area would be countywide, begining in 2022.

Committee members voted unanimously on May 3 to send recommendations to both the Madison City Council and the Dane County Board of Supervisors, that the cost of the position be split between their budgets in 2022. The annual cost is expected to be $80,000 to $100,000.

If hired, it’s envisioned that the resource coordinator’s early tasks would include identifying the doubled up homeless population countywide, data about which is now elusive.

Committee members said they made the recommendation in May in advance of annual budget discussions that typically kick off in June.

CambridgeAasen-Gowan told that committee that she knows of 10 Cambridge students, out of a total of about 950 children district-wide, whose families are currently homeless. Of those, 9 are doubled up, some in situations that are not safe, she said.

Aasen-Gowan said due to the absence of dedicated shelters in rural communities like Cambridge, doubling up may be more prevalent than believed in remote corners the county. She said homeless families in rural areas, who lack access to public transportation and also often lack access to a vehicle and consequently to services that require driving into Madison, also could benefit from an advocate able to walk them through the various kind of help available to them.

She said a lack of affordable housing in rural areas also makes it hard for families who find themselves homeless to secure a new place to live.

Aasen-Gowan also said that in relatively affluent Cambridge, homelessness and poverty in general can be “pretty invisible” and can carry a “big stigma.”

“Most of the time these families and kids are invisible. People are really surprised in Cambridge when I talk about homeless students,” Aasen-Gowan said.

“What this looks like for us is kids and adults living with other households,” with families sometimes remaining intact and sometimes youths living separately with friends whose parents take just them in.

“We have kids living separately from their parents, and they are finding some stability that way,” Aasen-Gowan said.

Aasen-Gowan said she joined in the meeting after becoming familiar with a “doubled-up” workgroup affiliated with the committee.

“I am here to ask you to consider including funds for the doubled-up resource position to serve and advocate for the homeless that are doubled up,” Aasen-Gowan said.

Committee members said there is also evidence that a significant number of homeless families that have children in the Madison schools are living in doubled up situations.

Other area residents who spoke to the committee agreed that both Madison and greater Dane County need an advocate who has a better picture of the scope of the doubled-up population and who can help the city and county work to better support them.

Madison Ald. Yannette Figueroa Cole she supports the creation of the position, initially to “get an idea of what the problems are and what other kinds of resources, as a community, we can access to actually serve this population.”

“I think we need to give the public a better picture of the issues that we are experiencing when it comes to homelessness and all the different layers and needs that are out there,” Figueroa Cole continued. “We are really doing a disservice to the people we are trying to serve and to the community by not having a clearer picture of what the problem is.”

Dane County Board Supervisor Michele Doolan, who represents rural western Dane County, said she believes doubling up is a significant issue for homeless families outside of Madison and said she would support funding the new position if both the city and county were served.

“I am in fully support of this,” Doolan said.

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