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So far, Madison's first homeless shelter encampment exceeding expectations

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Dairy Drive - shelters

The 64-square-foot tiny shelters at the city's first legal homeless shelter encampment at 3202 Dairy Drive on the Southeast Side. The units have locking doors and heaters.

In two months, the city’s first legal tiny shelter encampment on the Southeast Side has provided roughly 30 homeless people safe refuge from the elements, connections to key services and, already for some, a path to permanent housing.

Amid the current cold snap, snow lightly covers the 1.8-acre site that holds 30, 64-square-foot tiny shelters equipped with operable windows, fold-up beds, shelving, electricity, light, a heater and a mini-refrigerator. But it has a sense of place, with bicycles leaning against many of the white shelters and personal grills and other belongings stored beside them.

As of Friday, 27 people were living there, with two more set to move to the encampment, at 3202 Dairy Drive, said Brenda Konkel, executive director of MACH OneHealth, which operates the camp with Kabba Recovery Services. Three people have already moved from the camp to permanent housing and two more are close to permanent housing, she said, adding that no one has left the camp dissatisfied.

Take an aerial tour of the completed homeless encampment at Dairy Drive in Madison in early November 2021, just prior to move-in.

Most of the homeless came from the sprawling tent encampment at Reindahl Park near East Towne that the city closed in early December.

“At the end of the day, the most gratifying thought is knowing that 25-30 people are living in much safer conditions than they had been, or likely would be, a fact reinforced by the extreme cold temperatures we’ve been experiencing,” city community development director Jim O’Keefe said.

The shelter encampment, for now called MachKabba Gardens after its two operators, is also finding support in the community. Organizations have provided more than 1,500 meals since it opened to residents in mid-November. Madison Fire Department Station 14, located across the street, has provided use of its community room for resident meetings. Others have donated goods and money.

So far, the need for police has been minimal, with six calls resulting in a report.

But challenges remain with some behavioral problems and alcohol and substance use that were present at Reindahl Park, and a lack of office, meeting and gathering space.

“It has been joyous and affirming to hear about the many successes that have occurred in the first short months — meals being served by community groups, the folks who have already or will soon be transitioning into permanent housing, the relief of having personal space and security, and the list goes on,” said Ald. Jael Currie, 16th District, who represents the site.

From tents to shelters

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020, the city designated the Starkweather Creek conservation area and 91-acre Reindahl Park near East Towne as places for temporary camping.

Initially, an illegal campground formed at McPike Park on the Near East Side but the city closed it. Over time, the number of homeless campers at Reindahl grew to match, then far exceed, what was seen at McPike, with up to 80 people staying there in tents, vehicles and RVs last fall. Eventually the city declared the encampment unsanitary, unhealthy and unsafe and posted notices that camping would no longer be allowed after Dec. 6.

The city, meanwhile created two options: the new encampment of 30 tiny shelters on Dairy Drive and 35 rooms at the two-story Madison Plaza Hotel, 3841 E. Washington Ave.

The 30 shelters, purchased from Pallet Shelter of Everett, Washington, are built with aluminum frames and insulated composite panels. The city purchased Pallet’s “cold weather package,” which includes some insulation in the walls, floor and roof and a 4,500-watt heater. The encampment also features a small building with office space and six restrooms with showers — each with their own entrances — streetlights, landscaping and a 6-foot privacy fence.

MACH OneHealth and Kabba Recovery Services have staff on site to help campground users with daily living needs and provide mental health services, substance abuse treatment and housing searches. Staff is on site from 9:30 a.m. until 2 a.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays; and noon to midnight on Sundays. Those staying at the encampment don’t have to accept the services.

Staff provide bus passes or gas cards each month, as well as scheduled trips to stores, laundry and other services. The encampment also has rules. Guests are not allowed overnight. Open intoxicants are not allowed in common areas or the restrooms, and drug dealing is prohibited. Those who accept shelters sign a two-page agreement with guidelines and rules.

Beyond expectations

Overall, the encampment is exceeding expectations, officials said.

“I’m super pleased the model seems to work,” Konkel said. “There have been surprises here and there but nothing insurmountable.”

The tiny shelters “are definitely warm enough,” she said, although some have complained about cold floors, drafts when opening doors, and mud at the site, where grass has not yet had a chance to get established.

“To date, the site and facilities have held up pretty well,” O’Keefe said. “The shelters have been tested by high winds and cold temps. City and property management staff have needed to deal with a few heating issues but, so far, have been able to manage. Important to keep in mind, these are not housing units; they’re structures offered as alternatives to tents or other unsheltered arrangements.”

The operators don’t try to screen or kick people out of the encampment, but instead give support to help guests be successful. They offer clinical services such as counseling sessions and mental health support, substance abuse assessment and treatment, and crisis intervention. Housing services include helping residents search for apartments, fill out applications and move in. The operators also provide case management.

Residents are provided at least one meal each day, personal hygiene products and shelter supplies such as blankets, rugs and lights. Staff make regular rounds after 7 p.m., and the office is kept open to provide access to food and a microwave oven.

Dairy Drive - meals

Barb Aughey, a volunteer with Friends of State Street Family, hands breakfast to a resident at the city's tiny shelter encampment on Saturday. Organizations have donated more than 1,500 meals since the encampment opened in mid-November.

“A lot of credit goes to the support service team assembled by MACH OneHealth and Kabba,” O’Keefe said. “It’s an enthusiastic, skilled group, and they’ve done a nice job early on of making people feel welcome and helping them get settled in. They’re not working under ideal conditions but they’ve developed, or built upon, good connections with many of the campers, several of whom, by the way, have already secured permanent housing.”

Residents are thankful for the increased safety and access to staff and new opportunities, Konkel said. But some object to having to check in guests and being monitored, complain about some of the same bad behavior they saw at Reindahl Park and sometimes have trouble getting to the bus, Konkel said.

Between Nov. 11 and Jan. 22, Madison Police received 17 calls for service at the camp, including three disturbances, one threat complaint, one fight and two incidents resulting in arrests, East Side District Capt. Jamar Gary said.

“Overall, things have been going well,” Gary said. “MPD maintains an open line of communication with (the Community Development Division) and the providers on site.”

“To date there have not been any major resource-intensive calls,” he said. “It has been encouraging to have service providers on site that are familiar with the individuals staying at the campground. A potential concern is the possibility of pattern calls for service that are caused by the same repetitive behavior, which have not been observed to date.”

“In many ways, these early months are about transitioning and relationship building,” O’Keefe said. “It will take time. Some guests have adapted more readily than others to the setting and the structure. A strong working relationship between support staff and MPD is also important and the two groups are meeting regularly to facilitate that effort.”

The community, meanwhile, has provided support, delivering enough donations to fill MACH OneHealth’s Downtown office and two storage spaces, plus cash gifts, Konkel said.

“While the site was being developed, significant concern, frustration and uncertainty weren’t uncommon expressions and feelings that even I, at times experienced,” Currie said. “Today I am proud to say the majority of contact I receive are service based, from donations of goods to the provision of specialized services such as trauma-informed treatment, counseling and employment opportunities.”

The major continuing needs include office space, Konkel said, adding that the operators may soon locate an RV or trailer to the site to provide more space for staff and interactions with campers. The operators are also looking for space for gathering and meetings.

“Office space is limited, as is room for storage, including for donated goods,” O’Keefe said. “We will try to address these issues in coming weeks, as well as others like the frequency of trash collection, how to handle snow melt and rain until planted grass takes hold, that have or may emerge.”

“Dairy Drive is a response to much of what plagued the Reindahl Park experience — it’s an actively managed, supported facility providing a safer and, yes, legal temporary alternative for folks while they work to secure stable housing,” O’Keefe said. “Reindahl taught us how quickly conditions can deteriorate when these elements are absent. Our challenge now is to do everything we can to make this initiative successful.”

Dean Mosiman's memorable stories from 2021

As the community emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, it's been amazing to witness the creativity, dedication to causes and resilience that give hope and promise. I chose stories that reflect that dynamic, some involving long-held dreams, including pieces about a vision for the next Downtown in the wake of the pandemic and protests against racism, and the Bayview Foundation's plans for redevelopment of low-income housing into what will be one of the coolest neighborhoods in Madison. A proposal for an 18-story housing tower that would have razed the historic Wonder Bar with its gangster lore on the South Side revived a movement to save the building with the final chapters of the saga yet to be written. After fits and starts, the Wisconsin Historical Society chose a site for a long-sought, $120 million museum at the top of State Street. And I was able to document the move of a homeless man from the once sprawling homeless encampment at Reindahl Park near East Towne to the city's first tiny shelter encampment in an industrial area on the Southeast Side.

There's been so much more -- the plight of event venues amid the pandemic, the Urban League of Greater Madison's proposed Black Business Hub and the unveiling of plans for the Center for Black Excellence and Culture, both on the South Side, new investments and initiatives to address gun violence, the coming of bus rapid transit and a transit network redesign.

It will be something to watch so many of these ventures come to fruition in coming years.

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