Madison residents voiced concerns and brainstormed solutions on how to improve homeless shelters in the city Saturday as a part of the Madison Homelessness Initiative’s “Dialogues on Homelessness.”

The dialogue included past and present homeless individuals, representatives of shelters and concerned residents. The discussion was centered mostly on the Grace Episcopal Church emergency shelter for men run by Porchlight Inc.

“I don’t feel that the shelter is perfect,” Porchlight Director of Operations Brad Hinkfuss said. “It’s a struggle for resources, and it’s a matter of doing the best you can with what you have. This doesn’t mean we don’t think there’s room for change.”

The group also had change on their mind.

Donna Asif, MHI director, said the community is rich with resources beyond money. She said people using the services have much to offer and should join forces with the shelter to make life better for everybody.

“Creativity is a resource and in this community there’s passion, there’s intelligence, there’s experience,” Asif said. “Change means you’re alive and breathing.”

The catalyst for the discussion was a recent article published in The Isthmus detailing the experience of homeless shelters in Madison. Homeless activist Nate Godfrey said there have been similar articles in the past but the group must be solution oriented to help solve the problem in the long run.

While concerned with many aspects of the shelter, former and current homeless people were apprehensive about the staff’s care and qualifications throughout the discussion.

“I’ve been [to Grace Episcopal] many times,” Madison resident Casimir Brandon said. “I’ve seen people that work at the shelter be really vicious.”

Madison resident Clarence Tate said he believes the staff at the Grace Episcopal shelter are not educated or trained well enough to work with the homeless population. He said they act more as monitors.

Staff at a homeless shelter should be trained on how to help solve the problems that rendered individuals homeless in the first place, Tate said.

Tim, a resident of Madison, said the Grace Episcopal shelter should provide a positive atmosphere to give men an opportunity to resurrect themselves.

When asked why the staff was not being trained in those areas, Hinkfuss said Porchlight cannot hire professionals as the organization has few resources. He said Porchlight invests a lot of time and energy into the issue, trying to train staff as best as it can.

The group also provided concrete suggestions to improve the shelter, including supplying lockers to prevent theft, training staff working with specific populations and posting more information about jobs in Madison.

Men who have stayed at the Grace Episcopal shelter in the past were not shy to detail their experiences to support their critiques.

Jeffrey of Madison said one of the first things he was told upon entering the church was to sleep with his bag of belongings under his head to avoid theft.

“People will tickle you in your sleep to see if you’re awake or not so they can steal things,” Jeffrey said.