At dusk on a frigid night in late February when the temperature will drop below zero, dozens of homeless men form a ragged line in the courtyard of Grace Episcopal Church on Capitol Square.
It’s a potentially volatile mix of some the city’s most vulnerable adults: from chronic street denizens, some with serious physical ailments, mental illnesses or in the grip of alcohol or drug addiction, to others who work but can’t find housing in Madison’s ultra-tight rental market. Together, they seek shelter in a worn, cramped basement that many concede is an embarrassment in the state’s robust capital city.
After waiting again inside a narrow corridor, the men are checked in and descend a beaten staircase — there is no elevator, so those with disabilities must use a back alley entrance — to the intermittent scents of tobacco smoke and unwashed clothes and spates of disjointed or wild talk that come with too many men who live on the street being jammed into too little space.
Then it’s on to another line as the men — 151 on this night, some in walkers or wheelchairs — wait to be fed by volunteers from another church. With just 28 places to sit, they eat in shifts, with many taking their meals back to their metal bunks.
The bunks are limited, too, and before long more than half of the men are sent back out into the bitter cold to walk to overflow shelters in the basements of St. John’s Lutheran and First United Methodist churches blocks away. There, they’ll sleep on bare mats jammed side by side along the floor, some without blankets because organizers had run out.
The men’s expressions range from warm and grateful to suspicious or vacant. Some cluster around the few seats and tables to watch TV. There are arguments and, on some nights, fights. Some hear voices or spew wild stories. At each site there is only one supervisor, and only Grace offers limited case management help, but there are no professionals to help the men deal with serious mental or physical problems.
Around 9:30 p.m. it’s lights out and exhaustion largely rules. At 6 a.m., more volunteers serve breakfast to those who stayed at Grace, as well as men who have returned from the overflow shelters and other homeless men and women who drop in. All must leave by 7:15 a.m.
The scene will play itself out the next night, and the night after that, as it has for 35 years. Yet, when it was established in 1985, the shelter in the basement of Grace was supposed to be a one-year experiment.
“A vibrant community is a great community to the extent it cares for its most vulnerable people, and by that measure, Madison is failing,” said Rev. Jonathan Grieser, rector at Grace. “We’ve let it languish as a community. We’ve settled for barely humane shelter.”
But now an informal group made up of clergy members, nonprofits including Porchlight Inc. — which operates the men’s shelter system — neighborhood leaders and representatives of the city, county and private sector is seeking to build support for a new men’s homeless shelter.
‘Not going away’
The shortcomings of the current men’s shelters have been evident for years.
In 2015-16, the city considered renovating an aging Downtown building for use as a day shelter or an overnight shelter, but city agencies using the facility didn’t want to move, there wasn’t a way to pay for it, and the project never materialized. The proposal also sparked deep angst among Downtown residents, said Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District.
In early 2019, Grace hired former longtime Downtown Madison Inc. president Susan Schmitz to explore interest in creating a modern, clean, well-equipped, safe and properly staffed men’s homeless shelter.
“This is a big deal,” Schmitz said. “It’s not going away.”
Last April, more than a dozen people including Schmitz and staff from Porchlight, DMI, the city and county traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, to tour Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ $100 million Higher Ground homeless shelter and housing campus. The facility has 308 shelter beds, amenities and social services, 48 “pay-to-stay” beds for $7 a night or $42 a week, and 370 permanent, low-cost housing units in two buildings.
“That’s when many of us realized what’s possible when a community comes together,” Grieser said.
Late last year, an independent steering committee emerged to consider the issue. Led by Schmitz and with more than two dozen members, the group has had three meetings so far. Members are exploring what a new facility might look like and details such as hours, number of beds, amenities, services, security and whether it should include some pay-to-stay beds or be connected to low-cost housing.
Then, Schmitz said, the group will turn to the more delicate matters of how to pay for it and where it should go.
Although not formally authorized by the city or county to undertake such a project, and with no one entity taking the lead, some hope the group can be the catalyst in getting a new shelter built.
“I’m optimistic about this,” said Jackson Fonder, president of Catholic Charities of Madison, which operates The Beacon homeless day shelter that opened at 615 E. Washington Ave. in 2017. “The sense of urgency is high. This can be the spark that lights the fuse. This is one step in the process.”
Already, Porchlight has expressed interest in operating a new shelter, and Fonder sees a potential role for Catholic Charities to play. “It has to be a good fit,” he said. “It could be a support role. It could be a lead role. It could be no role.”
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and County Executive Joe Parisi support the steering committee’s efforts but have made no formal commitments to a project.
“I feel it is a positive that this group has convened,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I am heartened that they have organized. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
No other place
The men’s shelter system provides only the basic needs of indoor shelter, food and showers but the sites are not fully accessible, functional or safe.
Grace and St. John’s, open year round, have capacities of 70 and 60 respectively, while First United, open from Nov. 1 through March 31, has a capacity of 35 and doesn’t accept men who have been suspended from the shelter system or those who are intoxicated or smoke. None of the sites were built to be homeless shelters.
At Grace, always at capacity during the winter, the metal bunk beds provide no privacy. A communal shower with six shower heads, three toilets and two bathroom sinks typically serve around 60 men at any one time. There is no air conditioning or elevator. Blind corners and hallways are hard to monitor.
A 2010 remodeling project paid for by donations — the largest from Epic Systems ($128,500) and the JP Cullen Foundation ($10,000) — improved the shelter, particularly the kitchen and bathroom.
“The goal of this shelter, for 35 years, is that no one freezes to death,” Porchlight executive director Karla Thennes said. “No one comes in happy. Their lives are miserable, and they are miserable. There are people with severe medical issues who shouldn’t be here. You have people in dire situations. You would not come to this shelter unless you had no other place to sleep.”
Communicable diseases, such as scabies, are a concern, Thennes said. Bedbugs have not been a problem in recent years, she said, but blankets and sheets get laundered only every second or third day, so the bedding is often unclean.
“It’s crowded, but it’s shelter,” said Edward Fiorito, who’s been homeless off and on for three decades. “It’s a place to lay myself when I have no other place. Some guys come in here and bring their BS, arguments and fights. And some are drunk. People get argumentative with each other. (But) I’m thrilled to be here. I don’t want to be out there.”
Currently, Porchlight has 2.5 full-time equivalent case managers to serve 1,200 men annually, meaning they can work with just 10% to 15% of those who walk through the doors.
Each night manager is responsible for up to 60 guests. The work includes managing threats and even occasional violence.
“It’s safe, but it’s not safe,” said Doug Porteous, who’s been homeless off and on since 2013 and volunteers when he stays at the shelter. “You get a hundred egos and attitudes.”
At St. John’s, men on mats covered the floor in a space used for the church’s Off the Square Club, which provides help during the day for people with mental illness. It has a single bathroom with two stalls and two sinks.
“There are a lot of broken people here,” said Vance Gatlin, who is homeless but works full time at a hotel and hopes to secure housing soon. “There are working, functioning people (and) you’ve got people who can’t even come down the stairs. There’s no screening. One person has a cough, we could all have a cough tomorrow.”
First United is newer but still only offers mats on a floor in a single room, with bathrooms in a hallway.
“Aside from services, safety of both guests and staff is an ongoing concern,” Thennes said. “We haven’t had a headline situation for 35 years — through the grace of God.”
Comes at a cost
The men’s shelter system relies heavily on the generosity of others.
Porchlight’s operating budget goes mostly toward labor — three night managers are needed at least 10 to 14 hours each evening, seven days a week — amounting to $653,000 this year. The money comes from private donations ($190,685), Dane County ($224,676), state and federal grants ($179,639) and a Madison Community Development Block Grant ($58,000).
The nonprofit pays Grace about $1,900 a month to help with utilities, while the two overflow churches provide their sites for free.
About 70 groups with roughly 1,000 volunteers provide the free dinners and breakfasts, Thennes said. On the frigid night, Good Shepherd Church volunteers offered sloppy Joes, salad, fresh fruit, cookies, chips and milk — a splash of color and health in a drab setting — to a line of men the length of the basement. Once a month, Grace hosts a sit-down dinner in the church’s first floor grand hall, usually with live music. The meals cost roughly $300,000 a year and have been provided for decades.
The churches see their efforts as being at the heart of their faith. But church leaders agree the spaces are inadequate and the services they provide take a toll on congregations through higher operating costs, wear and tear on facilities and competition for limited space in the buildings.
St. John’s is exploring tearing down its church and rebuilding with first-floor space for worship, offices and social services topped by eight to 10 stories of moderate-income housing, Rev. Peter Beeson said.
“This is part of our ministry,” First United’s Rev. Mark Fowler said. “(But) for this to be the solution of the community, it’s not much of a solution at all.”
The patchwork men’s shelter system is the city’s biggest unaddressed challenge in meeting the needs of those with no option but to live in cars, tents or on the streets.
In 2016, the city and nonprofit Heartland Housing opened the $8 million Rethke Terrace for homeless singles and veterans on the East Side. The next year, the county, Catholic Charities, the city and United Way of Dane County opened The Beacon at 615 E. Washington Ave. And in 2018, the city and Heartland opened the $11 million Tree Lane Apartments for homeless families on the Far West Side.
The facilities got some of the community’s most needy off the streets, but all faced neighborhood resistance and experienced high numbers of police calls and other problems after opening.
Late last year, the Salvation Army of Dane County, amid some fierce opposition, won city approvals for a $25 million project including a five-story building with emergency shelter and transitional housing; an attached gymnasium/auditorium/chapel; and a three-story apartment building, with 40 to 45 low-cost housing units on the site of its current shelter for women and families at 630 E. Washington Ave. and adjacent property.
The men’s shelter steering committee has taken lessons from those experiences, with members agreeing it’s critical to have a detailed, fully developed plan.
“Otherwise, people won’t accept it,” Schmitz said. “I don’t blame them.”
Porchlight’s Liz Duffy said any new men’s shelter would place an emphasis on diversion and getting men into housing. Among other things, she said, such a facility should have an indoor receiving area; designated smoking area; partially or fully private shower facilities and restrooms; separate sleeping, dining and multi-purpose areas; a meeting room for case managers or other community partners; storage space; and offer natural light, lots of color, high ceilings and a modicum of privacy.
“It’s exciting,” Grieser said. “But finding a suitable location and building community consensus around that location will be an enormous challenge. Getting it done will require a whole lot of people to do a lot of very heavy lifting and taking great risks.”
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