In four months, the city and Salvation Army of Dane County have transformed a vacated former nursing home on the East Side to a shelter that will better serve 35 of the area’s neediest homeless families.
The city in January acquired the 36,192-square-foot former Karmenta Center, set on 3.3 acres at 4502 Milwaukee St., for $2.75 million. Since then, it’s been refurbishing the facility so the Salvation Army, which has long provided shelter to homeless single women and families at 630 E. Washington Ave., can relocate families there from hotels being used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Salvation Army will begin moving families there in mid-May.
The X-shaped building, once the third-largest of Dane County’s 18 nursing homes, closed in the spring of 2019. It will now be used to provide about 55 separate rooms for residents, a kitchen, dining room, office, staff lounge, laundry facilities, showers and restrooms.
“We’ll be able to operate a 24-hour shelter and will be able to serve more families than we were able to at our previous East Wash location,” said Salvation Army Maj. Andrew Shiels. “It will also offer families more space to spread out to beyond their current hotel room.”
Initially, families will be connected to a “diversion specialist” to see if they qualify for other options than shelter. If not, the family will be offered shelter or placed on a prioritized waiting list if there is no space.
“I think this is a good development for families and our community,” said city community development grants supervisor Linette Rhodes. “It shows that, given patience, time and money, we can create adequate and safe places for people experiencing homelessness to connect with resources.”
Historically, the Salvation Army has been the point of entry for women and families experiencing homelessness, operating the area’s lone drop-in family shelter at 630 E. Washington Ave., Shiels said. The nonprofit also partners with the YWCA.
“This model worked well for what we had available,” Shiels said. “(But) we were very limited by physical space at our East Washington location. Our max capacity was about 22 families, and at the greatest demand, we were often met with double that amount seeking shelter.”
The pandemic forced the Salvation Army to revamp its services.
“We had to move families off site from the East Washington location to be able to provide social distancing for both the families and the women,” Sheils said. “The families were moved to hotel sheltering, and then both the family and women’s shelter became a 24-hour shelter.”
In 2020, the Salvation Army provided 57,875 shelter nights to families, a dramatic increase from 2019, when it provided 27,192 nights of shelter, he said.
“The city began exploring the purchase of the former nursing home at the start of the pandemic and considered it as a site for medical respite but decided not to move forward with that plan,” Rhodes said. “As we discussed strategies to support the community in response to COVID-19, the opportunity to purchase the building and move families out of the hotel system presented itself, and the city agreed that it was a good strategy.”
When the city bought the building it also acquired all the equipment and furnishings left there, Rhodes said. The city decided what could stay for use by the Salvation Army and held an auction to remove medical equipment and furnishings typically used in senior living facilities, she said.
The building hadn’t been used for a few years, so another major project was getting all of the systems working again, Rhodes said. “It was a huge team effort,” she said. “Literally, 100 city staff folks came together to make this happen.”
At the main entrance is a welcome desk in front of a large, sunlit dining area set up for 80 people, served by a commercial kitchen in the basement. The dining area also has two coolers that will be stocked with grab-and-go snacks available at all hours.
Each of the three wings has an office for a case manager and are lined with rooms with large windows and furnished with beds, dressers, end tables and a closet. Children’s beds will have colorful bedding and stuffed animals. Adjoining rooms can be connected to serve larger families.
At the end of one wing is a children’s library and play area and a nearby space furnished with comfy chairs and tables where adults can relax. The building has a large meeting room, computer room and special rooms for the diversion specialist and a housing specialist.
In the basement, besides the kitchen, are rooms with heavy-duty washers and dryers, an employee lounge, space for activities and programs, and storage.
To the rear of the building is a large, fenced yard with benches and planters.
Neighbors pitch in
Families will continue to have on-site support services, which will now include space and assistance for online learning for children, Shiels said.
“This facility allows our case managers to be on site and provide weekly check-ins to provide even more support in helping these families achieve self-sufficiency,” he said. “Our overarching goal is to help families experiencing homelessness secure permanent housing through our rapid rehousing programs.”
The Salvation Army is leasing the building from the city at no cost but is responsible for operations.
“I’m really looking forward to getting them moved in,” said Ald. Grant Foster, 15th District, who represents the site. “A number of neighbors have been collecting supplies for the families and are also really excited to welcome them into the neighborhood. It’s been really great to see so many step up and ask how they can help.”
Once funds are secured, the Salvation Army still intends to move forward on a roughly $25 million project to build an expanded homeless shelter and develop low-cost housing at its current property, originally designed as a Catholic school, and adjacent land on the 600 block of East Washington Avenue.
“The long-term plan is to allow Salvation Army to use (the Karmenta) space until their purpose built-shelter on East Washington is completed so families are not displaced again,” Rhodes said. “We then anticipate the site can be converted to other housing options for the community.”