Editor’s Note: This story was broadcast before the sale for the new emergency homeless shelter fell through. According to the Mayor’s office, the sale was broken off by the property’s owner. In a press release sent on October 21st, Mayor Rhodes-Conway said the project will continue and city officials will seek a new location for the facility.
At McPike Park on the East Side of Madison, a homeless encampment has sprung up with around 36 tents. An emergency local order in May eased restrictions on the encampments in McPike and elsewhere.
But with winter fast approaching, residents are voicing a variety of concerns.
Brian Johnson has been homeless for five years. His biggest concern as winter arrives is… a home.
“I say four walls. Four walls always need to be a standpoint on anything,” he said.
Chloe H lost her job at the start of the pandemic and moved into the Park. Along with the coming cold and lack of supplies, she’s worried about the unique challenges homeless people face.
“There’s a lot of women in domestic and abusive relationships out here,” she said. “They also are held down by having pets or financial abuse. I think that needs to be addressed.”
This comes as Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced on Tuesday, October 20 that a location has been settled for a permanent men’s shelter on the East Side of Madison in what is now a vacant daycare center.
The Mayor will be seeking support from the Common Council for $3 million in next year’s capital budget. This will match an additional $3 million commitment from the County Executive in his 2021 budget.
Mayor Rhodes-Conway praised downtown churches who have provided shelter services for the past 35 years. But she acknowledged requests have been made to the city over the years for a facility built specifically for the homeless.
“The need for a more functional space has long been known,” she said. “The existing spaces proved unable to provide safe shelter during the Covid-19 Pandemic, which forced us as a community to turn temporarily to the Warner Park Community Recreation Center.”
Rhodes-Conway said the eventual goal is to make the shelter more than just a living facility, but to also offer a range of support programs that allow residents to gain long term housing.
But the mayor also stressed the facility is not enough.
“This property acquisition is intended to address the need for a permanent shelter, but unfortunately will not help us meet the immediate need for more shelter space this winter.”
James DeGray also lives in the McPike Park encampment. He says he’s worried about a possible influx of newly homeless people if the federal moratorium on evictions isn’t extended past January 1, 2021.
“That’s what concerns me the most is the potential for thousands of people to be suddenly out here while things are already inundated because of restrictions,” he said.
Local non-profits are also working to address the homeless crisis as well. Occupy Madison has been building homes, but it’s struggling to meet demand for its tiny houses. Occupy recently closed on the purchase of what used to be Wiggie’s bar on Aberg Avenue on Madison’s north side.
At a common council meeting on Tuesday, alders voted unanimously on approving a temporary establishment at the Aberg Avenue location.
Gene Cox lives in the Johnson Street Occupy Madison Village. Speaking to WORT host Brian Standing on Monday, Cox said he sees these tiny homes as part of a larger, structural movement that needs to happen.
“We’re not gonna be able to solve homelessness just by a lot of tiny homes, right? Some people aren’t used to or can’t adjust to the community living style.”
Chloe, in McPike Park, says she wishes the community would look at those who don’t have a home with more humanity and compassion. And despite the challenges of housing, she believes there is a way it can be done.
“I mean its all sort of a utopian idea, but there’s gotta be something between dystopia and utopia.”