In a 16-1 vote, Madison’s common council punted a decision on a new east side homeless shelter to May fourth. The property, located on Zeier Road near the East Towne Mall, will cost the city an estimated $2.6 million, plus an additional $400,000 for related acquisition costs.
The council’s decision came around 2:00 AM, after hours of emotional public input and tense exchanges — notably between Alder Samba Baldeh and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.
Baldeh, who represents the district the proposed shelter will be located in, was the only alder to vote against rescheduling. By the council’s May 4th meeting, he will have ended his term on the council.
Last November, Baldeh was elected to represent Madison’s far east side in the State Assembly, and he’s not seeking re-election to his alder seat in next week’s spring election. Gary Halverson, who’s running unopposed for Baldeh’s seat, has also expressed opposition to the shelter.
Other opponents of the proposed location cited a laundry list of concerns — including but not limited to its impact on local businesses, property values and its distance from other homeless services.
A number of those who spoke in opposition last night were business owners at the nearby Global Market, an Asian food court and grocery store.
One of those business owners, Amanda Chen, said that the new homeless shelter would only exacerbate the Market’s pandemic-induced financial strain, as it could dissuade potential customers.
“To open this business, a lot of us have put in all the money we have,” Chen said via a translator. “The decision to open this business was made pre-COVID. So because of that, we had to delay opening for a long time. To add this on to that, a lot of us feel that this will be the complete destruction of our business.”
Fourteen business owners at the Global Market also submitted a petition to city leadership earlier this month asking them to reconsider the proposed location.
Guanming Shi is a Professor of Economics at UW-Madison and has spoken on behalf of the Global Market at prior city meetings. Last night, she said that the city failed to take into account a number of economic factors in its decision.
“Impact analysis should be conducted with great caution, rigorousness and with as much possible input from the stakeholders. From the earlier meetings I attended regarding this proposal, I learned that it was not done in this way for this project,” Shi said.
But, those who support the new shelter argue that the negative impacts are either overstated or non-existent. Edward Kuharski was the architect behind both of Occupy Madison’s tiny house villages, which also provide shelter for the city’s homeless residents.
He said that the villages have been an economic boon for their surrounding neighborhoods.
“When you actually address a problem with a reasonably well-run facility, it actually reduces the negative impacts in that neighborhood and the larger community, which makes sense,” Kuharski said. “If we don’t have facilities, then the homeless people aren’t gone, they’re just sleeping behind your garage instead of in a decent shelter.”
Linda Ketcham, a member of Madison’s Affordable Housing Action Alliance, said that the city is far overdue for a new shelter.
For decades, Madison has housed unsheltered residents in church basements downtown. When the pandemic began, the city sought other locations that are less crowded. Since December, the city has been using the former fleet services building on north first street in what’s slated to become the city’s new Public Market.
“While we’re incredibly grateful to Grace Episcopal church and their other partner congregations for their 35 years of service, we all know it’s way past time for a new shelter,” Ketcham said. “And if we’re honest, we also all know that no matter where the city proposes to place the new shelter, there will be opposition to it.”
If the council ultimately decides to reject the proposed site, it’ll be back to square one in a process that’s already been forced to restart once before — when a prior deal for a permanent men’s homeless shelter fell through in October. As Community Development Director Jim O’Keefe put it last night, there is no back-up plan.
“We’re on borrowed time at the location we’re currently in,” O’Keefe said. “There is not a next-up property, there is not an alternative to Zeier Road. That means we start over. Maybe we find a property next week, maybe we look for six months and don’t find anything — we don’t know.”
The city included three million dollars for the new shelter in the 2021 capital budget, but the Cap Times reports those funds still need another vote of approval from the city council. Dane County has also put up three million dollars for the project — although the city has yet to accept that money, as that would also require common council approval.
A vote to accept that additional funding is tied to the resolution approving the purchase of the Zeier Road property, which means that decision also got punted to May 4th.
Overshadowing last night’s debate was the recent shooting at the men’s temporary homeless shelter on first street. That incident left one man hospitalized. In response, the Mayor has vowed to review and revise the shelter’s security measures.
Also last night, the common council greenlit a memo of understanding between the city and Journey Mental Health for a new Crisis Response Team, one of the final steps in setting up the new program.
The pilot program is an attempt to reduce reliance on the Madison Police Department for all emergencies, and instead send paramedics and crisis workers who have been trained in mental health counseling and harm reduction to emergencies that warrant it.
That project is set to start this summer.
Photo by Brian Standing, WORT News