Housing & Community Triumphs over Polar Vortex

For most of us, the polar vortex produced the coldest temperatures we had ever experienced. In the days leading up to the vortex, grocery stores were flooded with people in a panic to buy the necessities needed to carry them through the two and half days they would be holed up their homes to escape the unforgiving weather.

In Madison, Wisconsin, the brutal cold lasted a whole week. The residents of our Rethke Terrace apartments in Madison, all of whom are formerly homeless, know all too well the serious nature of extreme cold, and trying to survive without essential resources.

“My first night homeless was in January of 2015,” said Kathy, a resident of Rethke Terrace. “All I had was a tent in the woods, now that was some hard living.”

Rethke Terrace houses 60 formerly homeless Madisonians, many of them veterans. The apartments opened in 2016, and many of the residents are experiencing winter indoors for the first time in years because they had been chronically homeless.

According to the department of Housing and Urban Development, individuals with this designation have been homeless for more than a year and have multiple barriers to housing. Many of the residents are experiencing not only housing for the first time in years, but access to the critical supportive services that help them thrive. When the vortex fell upon Madison, many of the residents were unable to stock up at the grocery store. They were instead left with just the food they had received from a local pantry – and stocks were dwindling.

“Oh I was nervous, but our property manager Heidi [Rethke Terrace property manager] was on the ball. She was coming door to door, making sure we had everything we need,” said Randy, an army vet who served for 10 years and die-hard Packer fan. “The community kitchen had some extra potatoes and things lying around, and we aren’t afraid to work with our neighbors when things got tight.”

Randy and Kathy share a bit of celebrity at Rethke Terrace, as they are considered some of the best chefs in the building. More importantly, they love to share their creations.

“I love to cook, I love to bake. I’m making food for everyone on the floor all the time. Lasagna, cookies, you name it,” Randy said.

A day into the freeze, Kathy and Randy realized the extended duration indoors would quickly empty their refrigerators – and that their neighbors were facing a similar situation.

“I grew up in a large family, so I know how to share,” Kathy said. “I had potatoes and onions, one fella had some ground beef, one person had peppers. We were going to make it work.”

Kathy, Randy and at least two of their neighbors – longtime Madison resident Tom and fellow Army vet Alex – joined forces to make it through.

“You know, we made it all work! I gave the last of my hamburger meat and we made some sort of goulash with it,” Tom said.

Goulash, lasagna, a couple of different stews – crockpots were working overtime on the second and third floors of Rethke Terrace. Soon, the whole group was sharing food with one another – and ultimately making sure that none of their neighbors would go hungry before Madison thawed out.

“It all started in the community room. Randy started bringing food down there when he had too much leftover. I would just regularly knock on my neighbor’s doors seeing if they were hungry. We’ve got a good community here – nobody will be going hungry on our watch,” Randy said.

For Alex, his compassion compelled him to do more than just share food. He went out of his way to check on a friend who wasn’t housed and to make sure he had what he needed to make it through those bitter cold days.

“I have a friend who is older and in the same situation that I used to be in, and I know what this winter must be like. When news came about the cold snap, I just thought about how the next few days would be for him. I put myself back in my old shoes, so to speak. There’s still folks out there. We’re the lucky ones.”

Heidi Holden, Rethke Terrace Property Manager, couldn’t be more proud of the budding community in her building.

“This place is home, and everyone here KNOWS that its home. We decorate for holidays, we carve pumpkins, we have a chili cook off next week. We celebrate birthdays, we do it all.”

With 11 years of experience in property management, this is Heidi’s first time working in permanent supportive housing. The residents of Rethke Terrace get to stay here for as long as they can, so long as they can adhere to the building’s rules and their health allows them. Serving the formerly homeless has been quite the experience for her – enlightening in some very positive ways.

“You would think people would want to be alone after all they’ve been through, but it’s the opposite. People crave other people.”