Helping Andrew Johnson.

Andrew Johnson walks fast down State Street, the central pathway of the small Mid-Western city of Madison. He cuts into a lane-way and past an air-conditioning grate, where he slows down to demonstrate how warm it is. Leaning against it, he explains that at night, police won’t let people sleep in the alleyway.

Chatting as he marches, the 53 year old finally arrives at the Christian student event on campus, and takes a seat in the back of the auditorium. He leans over his shoulder to make loud comments during the prayers and presentations.

He leaves before the event’s end, explaining that he feels uncomfortable, and adding that he smells of alcohol. He is embarassed to stay.

Though Johnson once lived with his daughter in the Northside, where he would take care of his grandson, he is now between homes, joining the other men served by the Dane County homeless system. This month he is sleeping on a friend’s couch in the Northside, for a small price. He pays by asking for the sum from a student.

This story is not new, there are many in the city with a similar experience. What’s more, his experience is not so unexpected of military veterans in America’s mid-west. Johnson has been without steady employment and homeless for ‘alot of years’. Tonight he’s a little drunk and bleary eyed.

The streets of Madison

“I used to party here all the time” he says, motioning toward the Towers, a large apartment complex on State Street. “I worked at the Kitchen” Bleary eyed, slurring his words a little, and talking of years past, tonight he’ll sleep on the grate in front of St Paul’s cathedral on State Street.

“The reasons for homelessness are so varied” explains Sue Wallinger of the Department of Planning, Economic and Community Development. “Some are purely economic, either they can’t find a job or they aren’t skilled enough to get a job”

Johnson is not alone, in 2010 over 3800 people were served in the Dane County homeless system, and of this number, single men make up a little over 1200, according to the Planning, Economic and Community Development statistics.

“Being down and out yourself…you know this ain’t the life” said Johnson. On North Port Drive and its surrounds, Johnson explains that the area can be dangerous, and is socio-economically ‘low low low’.

Johnson never sounds content about his situation, yet, this lively energetic man explains that he’ll ‘probably never stop drinking’

He doesn’t sound conscious of the scepticism some have that the homeless can be helped, or that they even want to be helped.

“Some worry that when someone says ‘I need money, I’m going to be evicted’ the money will be used incorrectly”, says Hassan Mohr, staff worker at the Madison Charity, Hospitality House. “They’re comfortable when I say ‘I got Sally here, she needs helps for housing.’

Johnson is averse to receiving much help from agencies like Hospitality House, explaining that he only calls when he really needs it. As a military veteran, he has often made his own way.

‘It wasn’t blue, it still seemed green’, Johnson says of the ‘blue grass’ which he expected when he served in Kentucky during his military stint in the seventies. Johnson also says he served in North Carolina.

Johnson, like all homeless with a military background, are entitled to special help, “If he is a veteran, the veteran’s hospital on the Westside has a slieu of services”, says Sue Wallinger of the department of Planning, Economic and Community Development.

Provisions for financial help for veterans however, have been inaccessible to Johnson. He explains that it’s a lot of paperwork, and that he tried once, but that it is a difficult task to complete.

Mohr of the Hospitality house mentions “Issues with a sub-population of the homeless, including problems with mental health and drug and alcohol”. Johnson’s inability to find work might also be linked to the meagre, or just non-existent supply of effective resources.

While the Hospitality House can supply a mailing address for him, Johnson says that the centre is a long way away. His possessions are scant or hard to access, harder to reach because of a lack of bus fare. Mr Johnson often claims that his things have been stolen and generally goes without much in way of food or clothing.

“Nine out of ten of these people (other homeless) will steal from the homeless, I’ve seen it” Johnson said.

Of Johnson’s situation, Wallinger explains, “At some point in time he’s going to run out of options, friends living with, lending money. If he doesn’t have a job, there are very few options of housing that don’t require people to have a little bit of money”

Johnson says he regularly checks with the McDonald’s. “They don’t hire” he says.

How Andrew Johnson will find work when he can barely afford to catch a bus or to make a phone call, remains to be seen. Where he can find the skills, the resources and the previous experience necessary for employment, is also uncertain, but this one man’s good humour and energy make him more than just another recipient of pity,  but a witness to the need for effective change, and better support services to respond to this sad endemic of homelesness in this town.

Daniel Nour


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