A proposal to buy a vacant big box store near East Towne Mall for a long-sought permanent homeless men's shelter narrowly failed to pass the Madison City Council early Wednesday morning.
Council members voted 14-5 in favor of purchasing a 31,500-square-foot building at 2002 Zeier Road for $2.6 million to convert it into an overnight shelter for men experiencing homelessness. But because the purchase was also paired with a $3 million transfer from Dane County for the project, it required at least 15 votes to pass — ultimately causing the proposal to fail.
Some council members argued the Far East Side property, which most recently held Savers and Gander Mountain stores, was not the right choice and said the city needs to do more research on a recently identified East Side property closer to other homeless service providers near Downtown.
Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, 1st District, said she "absolutely" supports the vision of the men's shelter, but not at the Zeier Road property.
"We've been pushed into it because it's available," she said.
Other council members admitted the location is not ideal, but argued the city can't wait longer on finding a permanent solution to a men's shelter system that for decades was spread across three cramped Downtown church basements before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the vote, Ald. Brian Benford, 6th District, said it was a "test of our collective values and morals."
"We don't know this is the best location — it obviously isn't — there's no best location, but it's the best we have," said Ald. Patrick Heck, 2nd District.
In a statement early Wednesday morning — after the proposal failed but as the council meeting continued — Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said: "I find it remarkable that after the year we have had, and the extraordinary lengths the City has gone through to protect the most vulnerable, that some members of the Common Council chose not to take the final, critical step to establish a safe, secure, purpose-built shelter."
"There is no doubt that today's vote will postpone construction for at least another year and increase costs for housing homeless men this upcoming winter," Rhodes-Conway said.
The failed purchase puts Madison and Dane County in an uncertain position going forward.
When the pandemic struck last spring, homeless men were moved from the church basement system to the Warner Park Community Recreation Center where a temporary overnight shelter was set up. The shelter was again moved in December to another temporary location in the city's former Fleet Services building, 200 N. First St., on the East Side.
In October, city and county officials announced an intent to buy a former child care center in the East Towne area for a purpose-built, permanent shelter. But the seller pulled out of the deal, and the Zeier Road site emerged in January as a contender.
Before voting on the Zeier Road site, Council President Syed Abbas, 12th District, attempted to delay a decision until August and give city staff more time to evaluate a commercial property along Pennsylvania Avenue as a possible site for a permanent shelter.
The Hooper Corporation property at 2030 Pennsylvania Ave., which is blocks away from the temporary shelter in the Fleet Services building, has better connection to public transit, Abbas said, and is miles closer to the Beacon day resource center and other Downtown resources for the homeless.
"It is the middle of nowhere — sorry if I offend someone — but that is the reality," Abbas said of the Zeier Road site. "It would be a pity to us to not look at that site and ignore it."
City staff said purchasing and renovating the Pennsylvania Avenue location could run as high as $30 million because the owner would likely want to sell all buildings on the property, and renovations might not be complete until 2024.
A permanent shelter at Zeier Road was estimated at $10.5 million, with renovations expected to be finished in late 2022.
Ald. Patrick Heck, 2nd District, said it makes sense from a financial standpoint to buy the cheaper Zeier Road site in the interim, but also let staff further explore the Pennsylvania Avenue property for potential city use. Delaying a decision on Zeier Road runs the risk of losing the property, said Ald. Tag Evers, 13th District.
The council rejected on a 14-5 vote Abbas' bid to delay a decision on the purchase.
Alds. Sheri Carter, Gary Halverson, Charles Myadze, Abbas and Harrington-McKinney supported the referral, and they ultimately voted against buying the Zeier Road site.
The proposed purchase was enthusiastically supported by advocates and service providers for the homeless.
Kim Sutter, director of services for Porchlight, which operates the temporary men's shelter, said a permanent place is a "fundamental piece" in ending homelessness.
"It's crazy how long overdue this permanent shelter site is," Sutter said. "This shelter is only one piece of the puzzle but it is essential."
Opponents argued the building is inappropriate for a shelter because it's far from other service providers and worried about economic harm on already struggling businesses in the East Towne area.
"I feel that a more central Madison location would be better served with the men that stay there," said Bridget Welch.
The City Council could have voted in late March on the purchase, but opted to wait until the winners of the April election were sworn in.
Shannon Barry, who lives a block and a half from the temporary Fleet Services shelter, said a lot of the concerns by opponents during the March meeting "really seemed to be steeped in stereotypes about those experiencing homelessness."
"We have had nothing but positive experiences with the guests of the Porchlight shelter on First Street, the gentlemen have been truly gentlemen," Barry said.
Matt Wachter, city planning, community and economic development director, said the city and county started to really explore permanent site options after the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year.
Several criteria were set for a permanent site, including close proximity to bus routes running seven days a week, a building that can be easily renovated and added on to, and a site that could be purchased fairly quickly, Wachter said.
He said "dozens and dozens" of sites got screened, and 15 to 17 met almost all criteria.
Occupy Madison village
Earlier in the meeting, which started Tuesday evening, the City Council unanimously approved zoning changes for Occupy Madison to establish a second permanent tiny house village at a former tavern on the North Side for people experiencing homelessness.
Late last year, Occupy Madison constructed and moved 28 Conestoga-style huts, which look like covered wagons, to the former Wiggie's bar property, 1901 Aberg Ave. The huts are smaller, temporary solutions than the tiny houses at the original Occupy Madison village on a small parcel of land on the East Side.
The changes the council approved allows Occupy Madison to replace the smaller huts with 22 of the slightly larger tiny houses.
After three years of experiencing homelessness, Kim Fruin moved into a hut in the new village this past winter. She said volunteering within the village has been a confidence builder and given her a purpose and drive to do better and be better.
"Occupy Madison gave me an opportunity to be able to help other people like myself in need," Fruin said.