Scents of caramel, cinnamon and pumpkin spice emanate from storefronts on State Street. Orange leaves with crispy edges fall to the ground only to be crunched a moment later by the paw of a puppy in a pumpkin costume. It’s undeniable: fall is arriving in Madison.
But, while nonchalantly following the costume-clad canine, look in the periphery. There is an entire homeless community in Madison and, for them, fall takes on a whole new meaning.
For Madison’s homeless, fall is full of cold, windy nights with only a blanket or two for warmth. It includes weighing whether sleeping in a shelter and risking assault is better than spending another sleepless night in an alcove between two storefronts. And, it involves fear of catching the flu or pneumonia with not a penny to spare for medical expenses. Their stories are raw, painful and human.
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“I’ve been on the streets for a year now,” a homeless person who wished to remain anonymous said. “It’s a terrible life. I was one credit away from getting my bachelors degree in business administration — one credit. I had an apartment, I had a job I had everything going for myself. And then, while I was almost eight months pregnant, my abusive ex-boyfriend beat me, made a noise complaint and I got kicked out of my apartment. So now I’m out here. I didn’t plan on this. I could have had a better life.”
While students walk around campus a world away from homeless people along the street, they need to remember that they might be much more similar than they think.
Just a mere few years ago this woman was taking notes in her lecture hall too. Winters in Madison are, “horribly cold,” another homeless woman who wished to remain anonymous said. “We do whatever we can to stay warm and depend on the kindness of others. This is the first meal we’ve had in two days,” she said, gesturing to a box of hot to-go meals a restaurant worker had dropped off for the three of them.
The woman explained why they didn’t choose to go to a shelter for the winter.
“We tried those, we didn’t like them; that’s why we’re out here,” she said. “I actually was assaulted in a shelter. I would never go back. Ever.”
She expressed how much she enjoyed having UW students around her. “Girl, I’m like a party girl! I love to socialize and have fun.” A relatable sentiment for many college students.
Homeless people are more similar to the students than we think. While donating to a shelter is a wonderful contribution one can make to the homeless community, don’t forget about the people on the streets seen consistently. Don’t turn away from them; turn toward them. They’re just trying to get by like everyone else and could benefit tremendously from simple things many people have the capacity to give them. Bring any spare blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, socks, gloves or coats to the homeless folks around, or pick something up at Goodwill or Target. Anything will do. These acts could change their lives.
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No one is obligated to help those living on the streets, so let’s make that our job. We need to provide them with food, clothes, outerwear and respect, and ensure our fellow Madisonians make it through the winter as smoothly as possible. If we don’t, no one else will. So while snuggling up in a heated building in comfy socks and sipping hot tea, don’t forget about the Madison residents nearby out in the cold. Next time you see them, if nothing else, just give them a smile. Even that can bring a little warmth to a cold day.
Dana Munro ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in theatre and drama.