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Madison Plan Commission recommends expansion of Salvation Army homeless shelter
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Madison Plan Commission recommends expansion of Salvation Army homeless shelter

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Salvation Army site

Madison’s Plan Commission has recommended approval of a roughly $25 million project to expand the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter on the Near East Side. The new homeless shelter and housing would be located at the Salvation Army's current location at 630 E. Washington Ave., plus adjacent land it has purchased to the immediate east, including a used-car dealership at 648 E. Washington Ave.

After a nearly seven-hour meeting Monday, Madison’s Plan Commission granted approvals for a roughly $25 million project to expand the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter on the Near East Side, but city funding for part of the project is still needed.

The expansion has drawn opposition from neighbors who fear the development will bring crime and other bad behaviors. The neighbors asked the Plan Commission to delay a decision until the Salvation Army proposes a more robust plan for how it will handle security outside of the facility.

But commission members unanimously approved land use permissions for the project, including a demolition permit and various conditional uses for the property.

Next, the Finance Committee and City Council would need to approve $500,000 from its affordable housing fund to support an apartment building that would be constructed as part of the project. Ald. Patrick Heck, a member of the Plan Commission, said the Salvation Army also still needs to raise millions, and maybe obtain additional financing, before construction starts.

To address some safety concerns, plan commission members added conditions that would require the Salvation Army to add more fencing along the property line and security cameras that cover all spaces in the facility. 

Andrew Shiels, capital area coordinator with the Salvation Army, said the current facility, at 630 E. Washington Ave., is outdated and no longer meets the needs of the community. It was originally designed as a Catholic school.

“Our current building is at capacity,” Shiels said.

Melissa Sorensen, executive director of social services at the Salvation Army, said the shelter has to turn away just about as many people as it takes in.

"We’re working with what we have," she said. "We are using a space that was never meant for a shelter."

About 30 members of the public who spoke on the project were largely split, with slightly more against the development.

Neighbors have described incidents of “anti-social behavior,” including open drug dealing in the streets, overdoses, aggressive panhandling, screaming at night, fights, thefts and other bad behavior.

“It’s not the people in the facility,” said Rick Macky, who lives near the shelter and has helped organize neighbors against the project. “It’s the hangers-on, the ex-boyfriends, the ex-husbands, the drug activity, off campus.”

Others argued that a larger building would bring more people off of the streets, improving safety in the area.

Anthony Brylski said when vulnerable people are turned away from the shelter, predators are drawn to the neighborhood to take advantage of them, and that's what brings crime. 

"If you have fewer people turned away, you will have fewer predators," Brylski said. 

The redevelopment would include a new homeless shelter, transitional rooms, increased mental health services and income-based and non-subsidized housing. The facilities would be located on the Salvation Army’s original 1.34-acre site, plus recently purchased adjacent property. The plan would increase the normal capacity of the shelter from about 150 to 350.

The Salvation Army has bought a used-car dealership at 648 E. Washington Ave., a building at 12 N. Blount St., a parking lot at 655 E. Mifflin St., and the QTI/U.S. Post Office building at 702 E. Washington Ave., though the QTI building would not be part of the redevelopment.

The proposed campus would include: a five-story building, with emergency shelter and transitional housing, at the corner of East Washington Avenue and Blount Street; a one-story attached gymnasium/auditorium/chapel, with a mezzanine-level walking track, outdoor playground and separate entry behind the main building in the center of the block; and a three-story apartment building, with 40 to 45 units at the corner of North Blount and East Mifflin streets.

The shelter building would also include a kitchen for meal service, office space for staff, services and partners, a gymnasium, and space for children’s activities.

Plan Commission member Jason Hagenow said society tends to "demonize" and "criminalize" homelessness, and he commended the Salvation Army's efforts to address it. 

"Everybody is in agreement that homelessness is a huge issue," Hagenow said. "I think this could be a really good thing for the city, and I hope that the Salvation Army takes all of the neighborhood concerns into consideration and really does right by them."

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect several editing changes.]

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

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