The Road Home: Focusing on Housing Solutions for Families

Mother and daughter in one of the Road Homes housing programs
Photograph by A&J Photography

No family ever plans to become homeless, and no mother ever envisions her children having no place to sleep. Brianna, a mother of three here in Madison, certainly didn’t. Yet the family spent much of the past two years this way—sleeping in shelters or sometimes in their car.

Brianna was already accustomed to facing challenges. She suffers from a chronic medical condition that requires dialysis three times a week. Still, Brianna was holding down a job and her family was making it through. Then her father passed away. Everything seemed to go downhill after that. Brianna could see her family falling apart, but she didn’t know what to do to stop it. Her health got so bad that, at one point, Brianna fell into a coma. She was unable to keep her job and soon fell behind on her rent. It was not long after this that the family found themselves homeless.

At The Road Home Dane County, where we focus on families with children experiencing homelessness, we often come across families like Brianna’s. These are families battling difficult circumstances, such as physical or mental health problems. Often these families are just managing to get by until a change in circumstances deals them an unexpected blow.

After losing her housing, Brianna found it difficult to find a landlord who would give her another chance. Securing affordable housing is a problem many low-income families in Dane County face. With a very low vacancy rate in the area, extremely low-income and vulnerable families often get squeezed out of the rental market. The shortage of housing also drives up rent prices. Addressing this affordable housing shortage is one of the main focuses of The Road Home. We believe that the solution to homelessness is housing. That’s why we help families find affordable housing in the community as well as partner with others in the community to create new affordable housing. We also provide supportive services to help families maintain housing.

Just a few weeks ago, Brianna got the call she had been waiting for—there was an apartment for her family in a new affordable housing unit at The Breese Apartments. These new housing units came about through a partnership between The Road Home and Stone House Development, Inc., a local real estate and consulting firm. The apartments include nine affordable three-bedroom townhomes for families served by The Road Home. “I got blessed with affordable housing through The Road Home,” Brianna says. “I’ve always dreamed of having a home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Now my kids and I have a safe place.”

In 2017, The Road Home served 168 families and almost 400 children like Brianna’s, helping them transition from homelessness to housing. Once families get stable housing, they rarely return to homelessness. Ninety percent of families we served remained in housing through our different housing programs.

One of the key ingredients in our success is our supportive services. Brianna has been meeting regularly with her on-site case manager at The Breese, setting goals for herself and her family and planning ways to achieve them. Her case manager has helped her navigate how to coordinate her healthcare and access her needs. “I’m also trying to get on the right track and go back to school,” Brianna says.

Here at The Road Home, we witness individual successes all the time. But often people want to see the bigger picture too. Are we, as a community, really making progress on the larger problem of homelessness? It’s difficult to accurately know how many families are truly unstably housed because they are living with family or friends or in a hotel, moving from place to place. But we do have good data on families who are defined as literally homeless, which means living in the street, a shelter, car, or other place not meant for habitation. The total annual unduplicated count of people in families served in our community’s shelters the past few years show a decline. In 2013, that number was 761; in 2014, it dropped to 697; in 2015, it dropped again to 649.

Another way to measure if we’re making progress is by our annual Point-In-Time count, which is a national mandatory count of people experiencing homelessness in all communities on the same night. The July 2014 Point-In-Time count showed 108 homeless families in our community. In 2015, there were 99 families, and in 2016, there were 93 families. This past July, that number decreased again to 84 families. While that’s still 84 families too many, both methods show a trend in the right direction. This means what we’re doing is working, especially in the area of creating more affordable housing with supportive services.

Our success of the past has come because of community support. Business partners, congregations, donors, and volunteers have all joined together to make a difference in the lives of families. Individual volunteers and congregations work directly with families, hold drives to gather wish list items, gather snack bag items, and provide meals for families. Business partners help us fill backpacks for children, fund programs, and sponsor events. These are just a few examples. This community effort enables more families like Brianna’s to move into stable housing.

Several weeks into their new housing, Brianna feels like she has her family back. Her children are doing what they can to contribute, offering her encouragement and support with her health problems. Her oldest son got a job so he can help the family financially. “When we were homeless, all of our positive support of one another fell apart,” Brianna says. “Now that we have a home, we are working on spending time together. Our goal is to restart our family dinners, movie nights, and game nights so we can all bond together.” She wants her family to not just be stable, but to be even better than they were before.

Kristin Rucinski is the executive director of The Road Home.

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The Road Home Dane County
128 E. Olin Avenue #202
Madison, WI 53713