Although shelters in the area have been at capacity for years, many families who have no home have been able to turn their lives around as those resources helped them.
"To actually live in my van and not be protected.. yes, it's hopelessness. It's despair. It's all of that you can think of," said Carrie, who was homeless.
In 2012, Carrie left a difficult life in Rockford for a new start in Madison, but her dream to start a vegan bakery failed.
"I was all by myself with my kids, I didn't know anyone here," Carrie told 27 News.
She couldn't find anyone to rent to her. Carrie and her two kids were living in her van, until she found The Road Home.
"With their help and guidance, I was able to get into housing stability and it was up from there," she said.
For 19 years, The Road Home has run an emergency shelter for homeless families, but now, that shelter will close in spring. Executive Director Kristin Rucinski says it was the right decision.
"We quickly realized, as an agency, that housing is really the answer to homelessness and that shelter is needed, but it's like a Band Aid, stopgap intervention," said Rucinski.
The organization has spent the past 10 years expanding its other programming, to focus on affordable housing rather than just serving as a shelter. Now, as the shelter closes, The Road Home will focus on housing and case management.
Part of the decision came because Madison has seen a drop in need, overall. The city looks at several different ways of tracking homelessness, but experts say all of the numbers are improving.
Homelessness in Numbers
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires Point in Time surveys be conducted twice a year, in January and July. Volunteers travel the city counting the number of people living on the street or staying in shelters.
Based on the HUD Point in Time numbers, homelessness in Madison and Dane County has declined by 20.5 percent from January 2012 to January 2017. In that same time, family homelessness declined by 16.3 percent.
Another way city officials track homelessness is through the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR). It counts the number of people using an overnight shelter or transitional housing over the course of the year. This is an unduplicated count throughout the year, whereas the Point in Time survey tracks only one day, but it misses a number of people who choose not to use housing services.
Based on the AHAR data, city officials say homelessness in Madison and Dane County declined by 10.8 percent between 2012 and 2017. Family homelessness declined by 8.3 percent.
The Madison Metropolitan School District also tracks homelessness, focusing on any child or family who doesn't have a permanent home of their own, which includes people living with their family members.
The MMSD count shows 1,391 homeless children in the 2016-17 school year, compared to 1,263 children in the 2012-13 year.
In 2016, the city also turned to a fourth way to track homelessness, with a prioritized list of homeless people. This list keeps details on each person and prioritizes them based on the greatest need, to help organizations focus services.
Officials say this list has been useful. The number of chronically homeless families in Madison dropped from about 40 in March 2017 to 20 in January 2018. The number of non-chronically homeless families dropped from 529 to 84 in that same time frame.
Jim O'Keefe, Community Development Division Director for the city of Madison, tells 27 News ending family homelessness is within reach, thanks to help from various projects throughout the city.
Mayor Paul Soglin says in recent years, the city has changed how it applies for federal tax credits, boosting Madison up from one of the lowest apartment vacancy rates in the nation. Plus, the city has changed how it uses TIF dollars to support low income housing projects.
"If you look at the trend line year by year over the last six to seven years ... the numbers are down," Soglin told 27 News. "[But] until everyone has housing and has affordable housing, which means they're not spending 40 to 50 percent of their household income on shelter, we have not solved the problem."
The city is on track to meet its goal of adding 1,000 new, affordable homes by 2020, according to the mayor.
Working as a System to Tackle Homelessness
As The Road Home's shelter closes, housing programs are the new focus, partnering with other agencies and services to end homelessness.
"We've been really, I think, ahead of the curve as far as collaboration, working as a system, but the last three to four years it has really amped up," Rucinski said.
Organizations like The Road Home, The Salvation Army and the YWCA are now collaborating on their programs to make the best use of the resources and give people one centralized place to go for the help they need.
Salvation Army's Director of Social Services Melissa Sorensen expects Salvation Army's family shelter to serve more people when The Road Home's closes this spring, but she says reorganization in the past two years has helped better manage the needs.
"We're hoping that as we continue to grow our housing programs that the shelter stay will decrease and people will be able to move through the system quicker into housing,' she said.
The Road Home's new focus has already brought results. An affordable housing project opened to shelter families a few weeks ago off E. Washington Avenue and more partnerships are in the works.
"We know that if this can be successful, hopefully that'll mean that more projects like this will happen down the road," Rucinski told 27 News.
Experts say the summer months are the hardest time of year to find enough shelter for families in need, so the agencies are working together on a possible summer overflow service in Madison, for when Salvation Army's emergency shelter is full.
Finding their Road Home
The hope is that everyone can find their road home, like Carrie did. Six years after being homeless, she's now running her own vegan baking business called Lush Life. Her baked goods can be found in Metcalfe's.
"It took me a while but it worked out," Carrie said. "It changed my perspective on things, the way I look at things, my children. In everything I do, in every accomplishment, I always have to sit back and reflect on what The Road Home did for me ... it helped my children and I get home and become stable."
Carrie says she's grateful for the path she's taken thanks to The Road Home.