Heartland Housing for homeless families

Heartland Housing opened its new project for the homeless at 7933 Tree Lane in mid-June, bringing permanent housing with support services to 45 families. 

Officials are seeking long-term solutions and implementing changes to address challenges at a west Madison apartment complex for formerly homeless families, with area's City Council member calling for drastic actions.

Since Tree Lane Family Apartments, an $11.75 million, 45-unit project at 7933 Tree Lane, opened in mid-June, police calls to address fighting, weapons offenses, domestic violence incidents, drug offense and fights have persisted.

Ald. Paul Skidmore, District 9, said he would like to see the city pursue a nuisance abatement action against the apartment complex and Heartland Housing, the owner and operator.

“I want the threat to end. I want Heartland to step up to provide more security,” Skidmore said. “If they don’t, I don't think they’re doing what they need to do to keep the neighborhood safe.”

Three or more significant incidents occurring within 90 days is the standard for filing a nuisance action against a property owner. In the past 90 days, 19 people have been cited, arrested or probable cause has been developed at Tree Lane. Police have responded to a total of 90 calls for service in the same time frame.

Mayor Paul Soglin said Monday the city and Heartland Housing are taking corrective measures to improve the situation.

“I think we will avoid (a nuisance abatement action),” Soglin said.

Tree Lane Family Apartments is the city’s second investment in permanent supportive housing, which utilizes a “housing first” approach to homelessness that combines stable housing with services like mental health resources, addiction counseling and job placement. It is the first housing complex to house 45 formerly homeless families in one location.

The housing first model focuses first on housing individuals and then addressing the types of support an individual or family may need.

“Housing first accepts people into housing with the understanding that from that platform, they will be more likely to address the underlying issue that has led to housing insecurity,” Community Development Division Director Jim O’Keefe said. “Housing first does not mean housing with no rules.”

A spokesperson from Heartland Housing said the population served by the complex have faced extreme challenges and are recovering from the trauma of chronic homelessness.

“Transitioning from the chronic traumatic stress of survival on the streets is no easy task for any individual, let alone hundreds of Madison’s formerly homeless,” Heartland said in a statement.

Many of the problems at the property are caused by a small group of families or by visitors to the complex.

Through Nov. 27, police responded to 156 calls for service, excluding proactive patrols, according to MPD West District Capt. Cory Nelson. In the same time frame, 28 people were cited, arrested or probable cause was developed for a crime on the property.

“The mistake that we made when we came to this particular property is we were overly ambitious in terms of locating families with very difficult problems,” Soglin said. “The problem is reflected in the fact that a majority of these families have no connection with the police reports and the calls for service. One of the concerns that we have is that those folks are going to move out."  

Soglin said Heartland is in the process of evicting seven families that have been found to be a source of many problems at the property. He also said the YWCA, which was offering case management, has given notice they will no longer be involved with the project.

Currently, Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes is stationed at Tree Lane and working with a team of representatives from the Madison Police Department, Community Development Division, the YWCA and Heartland Housing to develop recommendations for the property.

In response to recommendations from the MPD, Heartland Housing has also begun removing cars that do not belong to residents and has granted police access to its camera system. Heartland is in the process of tightening up log book protocols for visitors, responding more quickly to broken doors, windows and garbage, and building community relationships.

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The MPD has also recommended that Heartland schedule two security guards to be present 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Currently, staff members are present at the front desk during the day and security services are present at night, according to the Heartland Housing spokesperson.

Heartland is in the process of evaluating the implementation of 24-hour front desk security, according to the spokesperson.

Still, Skidmore said he would be forced to withdraw his support of the city’s housing first initiative if he doesn't see results.

“Removing seven families is not going to change the culture that has created this problem,” Skidmore said. “We need to take positive action, and I will work with the MPD and the mayor’s office to pressure Heartland to do the right thing to increase their security.”

Soglin said the city team located on the property, the future change in case management provider and on-site changes will lead to improvements, but it will not be overnight.  

“We are not going to get it solved tomorrow,” Soglin said.

The city opened Rethke Terrace, the first permanent supportive housing development, in June 2016. The $8.9 million, four-story, 60-unit building for homeless individuals and veterans, located at 715 Rethke Avenue, saw a an increase in police calls over the summer.  

A proposal for a third permanent supportive housing site slated for 1202 South Park Street would include 58 units for homeless adults and 1,200 square feet of commercial space. The city has committed $1.9 million from its Affordable Housing Fund to the project, and it was awarded $8.1 million in federal tax credits earlier this year. 

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