Porchlight is a non-profit with the goal to reduce homelessness in Dane County. They work with community leaders to provide shelter, affordable housing, and supportive services for people experiencing homelessness.
They are the main provider for men in need of shelter in Dane County. For many years, Porchlight provided overnight shelter through basement facilities in 3 Madison churches on the square, with Grace Episcopal Church as the main shelter.
But the COVID-19 Pandemic presented a new challenge in Porchlight’s history.
Kim Sutter is the Director of Services for Porchlight. When the pandemic hit, she and her colleagues knew they were going to need a new facility to properly follow COVID-19 precautions.
“The city and county rallied around us to find a new space where we could fit everyone into the same location,” Sutter said.
That location was the Warner Park Community Recreation Center. The city helped convert the building into a shelter capable of holding 135 or more men. But Sutter says even in March, the location would be temporary. In the past, Porchlight has serviced up to 170 men in the peak of winter at the 3 church locations.
“And then we also knew come winter, if we were going to successfully get folks inside who have been sleeping outside during the bulk of the pandemic, we were going to need a space with a larger capacity,” she said.
That’s led Porchlight and the city to a new temporary location. Starting today, the 45,000-square-foot former Fleet Services Building at 200 North First Street will temporarily shelter at least 250 men. The space previously housed city vehicles for repair, and will eventually become the site of the Madison Public Market.
Sutter says the Fleet Service building will allow them to accommodate anyone who needs help. She expects they will not hit the 250 person capacity, but they are preparing in case there is a spike in demand when temperatures drop.
The City of Madison has worked closely with Porchlight to create and run the facilities, finding locations and helping provide resources. Much of this funding was provided by the federal government through the CARES act.
Jim O’Keefe is the Director for the Community Development Office of Madison. He says the Warner Park facility has been a learning experience in many ways. And he says it proves large scale shelters are possible and effective with a good facility and resources
“Over the many years, we’ve not really had either one of those,” he said. “We’ve been forced to operate shelters out of the basements of churches. They weren’t built for the purpose that they were being used, and the deficiencies really became apparent as the pandemic emerged.”
O’Keefe emphasized his gratitude for the churches’ generosity in the 35 years they have worked with Porchlight.
The city is in the works of building a city-run permanent men’s shelter, independent of Porchlight. But its faced a roadblock.
Back in October, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway announced that a location had been settled for a permanent men’s shelter on the East Side of Madison in what is now a vacant daycare center.
But just one day after the announcement, the sale was unexpectedly broken off by the property’s owner.
O’Keefe says the city is closing in on a property, but not yet at the point to purchase.
“I am hoping that as early as January of next year that we will be able to put the finishing touches on that and go to the common council with a request for authorization to proceed,” he said.
O’Keefe and Kim Sutter of Porchlight both said the community response to Warner Park has been incredibly positive.
At a neighborhood meeting about the shelter earlier this month, Alder Syed Abbas, the alder for district 12, whic his on the border of the First street location said he had received only one complaint.
“I’m optimistic,” said Abbas. “This is a temporary location and we will do whatever we can to make it successful.”
Sutter says Porchlight is used to negative feedback. But she sees progress in the response to Warner Park from neighbors, alders, police, and businesses.
“I think we are gaining more allies as we go along,” Sutter said. “We’ve had a good experience at Warner Park, and I hope that we’ll have a very positive one at the First Street shelter.”
The First Street shelter begins operations tonight. More information on the facility can be found on Porchlight’s website or by calling the non-profit at 608.257.2534.