For decades now, Madison has struggled to find a suitable shelter for homeless men.
The city has relied on temporary shelters in church basements, vacated stores, city park facilities in the summer and, currently, on First Street in the Fleet Services building that is scheduled to soon be home to the city's first public market.
Of all that has been exposed during this pandemic, the inadequacies of the city's program for homeless men have been particularly notable.
The city council has a chance to finally change all that during its meeting this coming Tuesday night, when it considers Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway's proposal to purchase a vacant big-box store at 2002 Zeier Road near East Towne Mall. The mayor and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi have agreed to include $3 million in their budgets to buy and renovate the property.
"This is our moment to transform the way we deal with homelessness in this city," Rhodes-Conway told our editorial board during a recent conversation.
The idea is backed by many of the organizations that have long provided services to the homeless over the years. Executive director Karla Thennes of Porchlight, the nonprofit that has had to work from temporary shelter to temporary shelter seemingly forever, says she is excited that it will at last give the homeless shelter a home of its own.
Rhodes-Conway notes that a permanent shelter at the Zeier Road location will not only be a place for homeless men to sleep. It has the space to offer other services around the clock — a place where men experiencing homelessness can stay connected, beyond just finding a bed. Besides, she notes, some homeless people have jobs at night and need to have a place to sleep during the day.
Approving the shelter "will allow us to live up to our reputation as a liberal city that cares about all of its people, especially its most vulnerable and marginalized — instead of moving backwards," wrote the members of the city's Affirmative Action Commission in a letter to the council.
But, the proposal is facing stiff opposition. Nearby businesses are opposed to the location, fearing that homeless men will hang around the mall. State Rep. Samba Baldeh, the former alder for the 17th District, is vehemently opposed, insisting that the shelter would negatively impact an area that is already experiencing crime. Gary Halverson, the district's new alder, is also opposed, noting the distance between the site and The Beacon day shelter.
Truth be told, however, no one wants a homeless shelter near their location. That's been precisely the problem in finding a permanent home through the years. The Zeier Road location, separated from residential neighborhoods, is significantly better and less intrusive than most.
It's on a bus line, it is near the planned bus rapid transit route and it has enough room to double the capacity in the current temporary shelter.
"As a city and a county it is our responsibility to provide a welcome environment for all who live here, whether their residence is a homeless shelter or a luxury condo," wrote the Rev. D. Jonathan Grieser, rector of Grace Episcopal Church — which housed the city's men's drop-in shelter for more than three decades — in a letter to the mayor and members of the city council.
Madison needs to stop sweeping our homelessness problem under the rug. The council needs to grab this opportunity and approve buying this property.
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