Earlier today, in the wee hours of the morning and after hours of public input and debate, Madison’s Common Council failed to approve purchasing a site for a new, permanent men’s homeless shelter on Zeier Road.
Alders voted 14 in favor of the purchase, with five against. But, since the proposal involved accepting three million dollars in funding from the county, and amending the city’s budget, it needed at least fifteen “yes” votes to pass.
Alder Nasra Wehelie was absent from the meeting and did not cast a vote.
The purchase of the property, located on Zeier Road near the East Towne Mall, was a highly controversial topic. It was originally before the council in March — but, amid robust public input, alders punted the proposal to yesterday’s meeting.
Several who spoke at last night’s meetings were operators and owners at the Global Market, an Asian grocery store and food hall located near the proposed site. Jiaqi Yi said many of the market’s operators supported a new homeless shelter — but believed that the far east side wasn’t an appropriate location.
Said Yi: “We invested in this area because we wanted a platform to promote minority-owned small businesses and to make the eastside of Madison even more colorful and diverse. The city’s overall plan for restoring this area was something we believed in…however this new homeless shelter was something that was never discussed in the original plans.”
Others who spoke last night said that placing the shelter on the far east side would put it a fair distance from many downtown community services. Some raised safety concerns, and others argued that the city failed to adequately analyze the shelter’s economic impact on surrounding businesses.
Others argued that the city’s current temporary shelter — at the former fleet services building on first street — should become permanent. But, that property will eventually become the city’s new public market, with construction set to start next year.
Advocates for the shelter argued these concerns were overblown, that the shelter was near a number of active bus lines, any adverse economic impacts were overstated or non-existent and that the city had undertaken a robust evaluation process before settling on the Zeier Road location.
Kim Sutter, Director of Services at Porchlight, Inc. — which operates the current men’s temporary homeless shelter on first street — said that a permanent site is long overdue.
“Many homeless service agencies, and Porchlight in particular, have a long history of making it work with very little funding and donated spaces,” Sutter said. “That was okay in the 80s, when the problem was first being identified. But in 2020, the ‘temporary’ shelter space at Grace church turned the same age as I did. It is crazy how long overdue this permanent shelter site is.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, the city has used a series of temporary shelters for unhoused residents. Even before COVID-19, Madison operated its shelter services out of cramped church basements downtown.
Alder Julianna Bennett pointed out that, no matter where the shelter is located, it’s likely to face community pushback.
“Mars won’t even be the right location for this shelter. You can put this anywhere you wanted to, and it still won’t be the right location,” Bennett said.
Alder Syed Abbas introduced a motion to push the decision to August, in order to give city staff a chance to research an alternative site on Pennsylvania Avenue. That measure ultimately failed five to fourteen.
Alder Gary Halverson, who represents the area the Zeier shelter would have been located in, supported the decision to investigate the Pennsylvania Road location. Halverson has previously voiced opposition to the Zeier Road proposal, and voted against the property acquisition last night.
“We have a perfect example of success at the first street location, so this Pennsylvania location — we should give the time it takes to do that. Because we know that this could be a successful area to work with,” Halverson said.
With the rejection of the Zeier Road location, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said that the hunt for a new men’s homeless shelter could take at least another year.
“I find it remarkable that after the year we have had, and the extraordinary lengths the City has gone through to protect the most vulnerable, that some members of the Common Council chose not to take the final, critical step to establish a safe, secure, purpose-built shelter,” Rhodes-Conway wrote in a press release this morning.
PHOTO: City of Madison