WASHINGTON -- Rep. Paul Ryan's awkward visit last week to a Youngstown, Ohio, soup kitchen made national headlines and has been the butt of late-night jokes. The head of the charity that runs the soup kitchen complained to The Washington Post that Ryan and Co. "ramrodded their way" in for an unauthorized photo-op.
Ryan's surprise visit was an even bigger shock to people who run organizations dedicated to serving the needy back in his Wisconsin congressional district. The Huffington Post called soup kitchens, shelters and used-clothing donation box organizers throughout Ryan's district and turned up precisely one Ryan sighting -- and that was of his wife, shopping for clothes at a thrift store.
Politicians have an established, yet simple playbook when it comes to putting on exhibitions of sympathy for the lost and the least -- donating free turkeys for Thanksgiving, passing out blankets in the winter, and, yes, even serving sandwiches at a soup kitchen. Ryan's congressional district, which includes his hometown of Janesville, has had ups and downs economically and includes a few shelters and numerous food pantries. Many of these charities proudly shun government funding -- just the kind of "makers" rather than "takers" that Ryan might support.
Ryan, despite more than 13 years in Congress, appears to be very much a stranger to those charities. None of the food pantry or shelter workers interviewed by The Huffington Post could recall Ryan having visited; a few others would not discuss the congressman. It's possible that charities supported by Ryan were overlooked, or that the volunteers' memories aren't perfect. But none of the facilities reached for comment said Ryan has ever set foot in their establishments.
Carol Hulburt, a coordinator at a food pantry in Milton, Wis., said Ryan has not once visited in the roughly 15 years she has worked there.
A worker who answered the phones at the House of Mercy family shelter said she has not seen the congressman come through its doors in the 10 years she has worked at the facility. The shelter's director did not return a request for comment.
Eric Levitt, Janesville's city manager, has volunteered with House of Mercy for nearly two years. He said he has not seen Ryan there. He told HuffPost that he had no idea how active the congressman has been with local soup kitchens or shelters. "I couldn't reliably tell you how involved he is," Levitt explained. "I don't know."
In a late August speech in Janesville, Ryan praised local charities, mentioning a food bank and House of Mercy. HuffPost could find no news accounts of Ryan having actually visited area homeless services.
Even when invited, Ryan hasn't shown up. Robert Borremans told The Washington Post in August that in the nine years he has run Janesville's Rock County Job Center, multiple invitations have failed to secure a visit from Ryan. "I've reached the point I don't ask anymore," Borremans said.
If one local shelter could have genuinely benefited from a Ryan photo-op, it was the one run by Michael Tearman, 52, a lifelong Janesville resident.
Social service work became a part-time calling when Tearman was 25. He served as a volunteer chaplain at the county jail, where he tried to help the men transition back into the community. He knew the kind of worries they had -- he'd been homeless once before. Often he'd end up buying the ex-cons bus tickets so they could get back to some supportive family. He sent some to Florida, Arizona, New York, the Carolinas -- pretty much all over.
Living out of a friend's car had been only a temporary address for Tearman. For 25 years, he worked as a carpenter. He had assembled box trucks and flatbeds at two Rock County factories. He was one of the last to work the line at General Motors as a summer helper before the local plant closed. If work was available, he took it.
About six years ago, Tearman began volunteering at shelters after seeing an ad in a local newspaper. "I was concerned about the city," he said. "I was concerned about the people that were hurting."
Tearman soon gave that concern an outlet, starting a small ministry and serving on the board of an ad hoc temporary shelter system known as God Is Faithful Temporary Shelter, which involves area churches. He said he never saw Ryan at those church shelters. After the GM plant shut down and he was laid off, he decided to convert his church and outreach center into a homeless shelter for men.
"I had to do something," Tearman said. He didn't like that GIFTS only operated in the winter. He was tired of seeing men being forced to sleep outside.
Tearman called his facility "The Shelter."
"I grew up right here," Tearman said. "The Shelter is three blocks from where I grew up." These weren't anonymous homeless, they were men with whom he had history, some he's known as far back as grade school.
Many of the men whom Tearman had taken in are casualties of the GM plant closing or lost their jobs when GM suppliers shut down. He estimated that 85 percent of those he helped have been from those factories. Tearman sometimes had as many as 30 bunking a night.
"You don't know how many times men filled my shirt with tears because they don't know where to go or what they're going to do -- 45-, 50-year-old men crying," he said.
Tearman opened a thrift store and staffed it with those men. He served meals -- and still does -- to as many as 1,500 a month. He also began a "bike ministry," offering the homeless a free bike share. It's all funded without government help, he said.
Soon after his shelter got going, the city took notice that Tearman lacked two things -- proper zoning and compliance with building codes. He opened in early January 2010. Janesville officials closed him down June 2010.
When he applied for a permit, his neighbors complained of blight and alleged "threatening behavior." Tearman disputed the claims. Some neighbors defended him.
Janesville's Plan Commission rejected Tearman's application at an October 2010 hearing.
The Janesville Gazette reported that one commission member told Tearman that he needed to build trust with his neighbors. "Perhaps somewhere down the road, it could be a facility that offers beds," the commission member said. "Right now, that trust isn't there."
During the controversy, Tearman said he spoke with Ryan about the zoning issue after running into the congressman at an appliance store. Ryan, he said, seemed familiar with the issue, but didn't offer much advice. "He was giving me the direction that he was more federal," Tearman said. "He couldn't do anything for me on the local level."
Tearman said Ryan referred him to his Janesville office. A Ryan staffer, he said, led him to believe Ryan might write him a letter of support. "I didn't get no letter of recommendation," Tearman said.
Ryan's wife has shopped at the thrift store. "She's a thrifty gal," Tearman said. But Ryan never showed.
If he did, Ryan would have seen that Tearman offered the men laundry facilities, hearty meals and a place to sleep. He'd see that the men helped to manage the place and gained confidence from doing so. "If somebody really looked into it, they would see what a wonderful thing is happening right in the community," Tearman said.
Ryan's spokesman with the Romney campaign did not return a request for comment.
Ryan didn't just stay clear of supporting Tearman. According to The Boston Globe, the Ryans gave $12,991 to charity in 2011, and $2,600 to charity in 2010. That amounts to 4 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively, of his income.
Ryan's budget plan calls for $133.5 billion in cuts to food stamp programs over the next 10 years, including cuts to emergency food programs that help to supply food pantries.
Because of the permit problem, Tearman has had to downsize. He still has the thrift store and the bike share. He still opens his shelter during the day and serves more than 1,000 meals a month. But he has to lock up at night. Sometimes, he said, he gives the men his car, a 1991 Chevy van, to sleep in. In the summer, Tearman hands out tents.
Levitt, Janesville's city manager, said he still thinks Tearman is genuine. "He's always worked in that area where he tries to help people," he explained. "Is his heart in the right place? I wouldn't question that."
Homeless men and women seem always to be falling through the cracks in Janesville. At the House of Mercy, families can only stay for 30 days. The facility recently reported 40 families on its waiting list. The winter-only, church-based shelter system can be an unforgiving place, if one can even get in. Organizers note that they conduct background checks on every resident; no one with an open warrant is allowed inside. In its list of rules, organizers warn that "a breathalyzer may be administered at any time." If a resident fails, they can be kicked out. The church system only has room for 25 men a night.
In Janesville, unemployment hit 13.9 percent in March 2009. Unemployment has since come down to 8.6 percent. But housing needs have risen. That waiting list at House of Mercy has more than doubled since the Great Recession. Last year, the church shelters served 126 men, up from 110 from a few years ago, said Stephanie Burton, director of GIFTS, who started in the position last May. She said she hasn't seen Ryan.
Burton's organization may not rely on government funding, but she said government services are vital. After all, she said, the church shelters often refer their homeless individuals and families to city services. "People can't get their lives back together in 30 days," she said. "There's a need for funding."
Without Tearman, Janesville has no stable men's shelter.
Tearman said he gets five to 10 calls a week from people looking for a place to say. He isn't sure a Ryan endorsement would have made a difference. "You have a lot of self-righteous people in Janesville who have had it good for so long," he said. "Janesville has this arrogance to it."