September 14, 2009 4:32 PM
At the end of the last Council meeting I got called over to a small room attached to the chambers. There sat Tony - it's not his real name, but he was really a three year old boy. He was with his mother and someone had sent them up to the City County Building to look for help. They were both homeless at ten o'clock at night with nowhere to go. Three of my staff members - Joel Plant, Ray Harmon and Rachel Strauch-Nelson - worked the phones for over an hour trying to find some arrangements for them, but there wasn't any location that would take them both at that point in the evening. We could get Tony into a shelter but not together with his mom, and she wasn't interested in that option. In the end, with no other choice but to put them on the street, my aides drove them to a hotel, bought them food and put them in touch with agencies that could provide them with more permanent help the next day. One conclusion from that story is that I hire good people, and that's certainly true.
But as I sat with Tony for awhile practicing writing "Tony" and "Joel" and "Ray" with him, I wondered what kind of future he had in front of him. We can question the series of choices or circumstances that Tony's mother faced to put them in this situation, but that doesn't matter much to a three year old. Tony looked to me like a bright, inquisitive and pretty good natured kid (he wasn't making much of a fuss at ten o'clock at night with no bed in sight). But how long is any of that going to last under these circumstances? And, if you want to be tough-minded about it, what's going to be the cost to society in the long-run when Tony gets older and starts making some choices of his own?
The good people who work with me in the Mayor's Office fixed the immediate problem, and the good people in Dane County's social service agencies may have found some temporary shelter for awhile longer. But in the last analysis, Tony's future doesn't look very promising.
The problem is much bigger than just Madison. Tony's mom came from out of state. And in fact, the City of Madison is not the primary social service provider. The State of Wisconsin and Dane County are. The problems of poverty, of homelessness, of teenage pregnancies and young kids without direction are national problems that demand comprehensive answers and probably more resources then strapped local governments can provide. But it's not a debate that is even on the national agenda right now and it should be. The question we should be asking ourselves is, what can we do so that in fifteen years Tony shows up at the University of Wisconsin instead of the Dane County jail?