“I’m pleased to say that today is a new day in Madison’s approach to homeless services.”
That’s Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who earlier today announced the location of the new permanent men’s homeless shelter.
The shelter would sit at 1902 Bartillon Drive on Madison’s far east side, located right next to a former homeless encampment in Reindahl Park. The mayor says the plan is to design a new shelter from scratch, to avoid working around the limitations of an existing building.
“And I’d like you to contrast the difference between putting mattresses on a gymnasium floor and building a building where you are expecting people to sleep on a regular basis. We are purposefully building a shelter to give people a place to go and to connect to services and permanent housing,” Rhodes-Conways says.
But finding the right location is just the first step in the process, and attempts to move beyond this stage in the past few years have fizzled. The mayor’s announcement today was news to some of the key stakeholders who would need to help move the plan forward.
It was news to Madison alder Gary Halverson, who represents District 17. Until recently, he represented the area where the shelter would be built. Under shifting boundary lines after the latest round of local redistricting, he represents an area just next door.
“(In) district 17 historically, people have helped those individuals experiencing homelessness. The residents are not opposed to helping those who need help. The problem is engaging and getting input, and seeing the mayor continuously saying ‘this is what’s going to happen’ without any engagement, it is very disappointing,” Halverson says.
Last year, the city considered a separate plan to build a permanent shelter also on the city’s east side. That plan eventually failed, due in part to concerns from neighbors.
Halverson – who represents Zeier Road, where that shelter would have been built- opposed the plan.
He says the plan did not account for community concern about the location – and in particular, safety concerns from a coalition of business owners at Global Market, an Asian food court and grocery store.
Alder Syed Abbas represents Madison’s 12th district, which would hold the new men’s shelter this go-around. Today’s announcement was also news to him.
Last year, alder Abbas joined Halverson in voting against the temporary shelter on Zeier Road, saying the plan for the shelter was not close enough to a bus stop for unhoused residents to access Madison’s downtown, where many support services are located.
Abbas says this time, that though he is disappointed with how the news of the shelter was released, he thinks this plan could be better than the last.
“So as compared to Zeier Road, it’s a huge improvement to have this particular location, and it all happened because of the accountability and pushback given by me and my fellow alders who voted against the Zeier Road. (It) falls around district 17 with alder Gary Halverson, and both of us came to know about this news from the local media. And why we have been cut off from this process, I don’t know why. I do think by not engaging us shows a symbol of not engaging the community. But I really want to make sure community voices get heard,” Abbas says.
Both Halverson and Abbas say they’re planning to hold public input meetings about this proposal. The two alders are holding a press briefing about the proposal tomorrow.
Karla Thennes is the executive director with Porchlight, the group that operates the current men’s shelter. Thennes has been with the men’s shelter since the 80’s, when the shelter started at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Madison. She says that the move to a permanent shelter has been decades in the making.
“We joked with Grace Church that we were there temporarily, so although it feels like this was two years in the making, this has been 37 years in the making. We are excited. The city has been amazing, and the city has stepped up, it’s going to take a lot of funding to purchase and renovate. The next conversation needs to be the operating cost,” Thennes says.
The new shelter would be a joint project between both the city and Dane County, who have already put together $9 million towards the project. A final cost estimate for the new shelter will be decided once the building is fully designed.
Currently, a temporary men’s shelter sits at the former Fleet Services building on First Street on the city’s east side. That site is expected to be repurposed into the new Madison Public Market later this year. The folks at the former Fleet building are scheduled to move to the Zeier Road location later this summer.
Jim O’Keefe is the Community Development Director with the city of Madison. He says that the community will absolutely get to have a say on the matter before plans are finalized.
“Well, today’s decision isn’t the final and definitive decision. The process is that the executive, in this case the mayor, will take a recommendation to the council. That’s what’s going to happen here, the council is going to be able to approve this selection through the resolution. There will be every opportunity for Alder Halverson and his colleagues to discuss it and decide if they want to support it or not,” O’Keefe says.
The new location has a long way to go, and faces an uphill battle at the next stage, where previous plans have fallen apart. It will take time to work through the Madison Common Council, and alders will need to approve the plan, which has not yet even been submitted to the council.
If it clears that and subsequent hurdles, the shelter would be expected to open in about three years.
Photo courtesy: Brian Standing / WORT Flickr