Porchlight is adding security at its temporary homeless men’s shelter on the East Side after a shooting Monday night, and saying safety will be a priority at a controversial, permanent facility planned near East Towne.
On Tuesday, Madison police provided security during evening intake at the temporary shelter in the city’s former Fleet Services Building, 200 N. First St., and Porchlight arranged for unarmed private security and weapons screening to be added there beginning Wednesday night, Porchlight executive director Karla Thennes said.
The nonprofit also arranged for volunteer crisis counselors to be on site on Tuesday evening and the rest of the week, Thennes said.
“Porchlight takes our guests’ safety, as well as our staff and neighbors’ safety, very seriously,” she said, noting that the shelter is covered by surveillance cameras. “We have operated the men’s shelter in Madison for over 35 years and this is the first incident of gun violence we have experienced. The incident Monday night at the men’s shelter shocked and saddened everyone at Porchlight.”
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Madison police are still searching for Ronald E. Stephens, 23, who is charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide for the shooting that left another homeless man wounded and brought a large number of police officers to the shelter about 7:30 p.m. Monday.
The shooting came as the city is preparing to move the men’s shelter to new permanent facilities in a 31,500-square-foot building that formerly held Savers and Gander Mountain stores at 2002 Zeier Road near East Towne Mall.
Since Dec. 16, homeless men have been sleeping at the temporary shelter at the former Fleet Services Building, the future home of the $13.2 million Madison Public Market, which is only available for shelter use for a limited time. Previously, homeless men slept at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center on the North Side after moving there from the cramped church basement shelters used for 35 years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
In January, city and Dane County officials proposed spending $2.6 million for the property at 2002 Zeier Road. The city’s Finance Committee endorsed the purchase on Monday with a City Council decision possible Tuesday.
Ald. Samba Baldeh, 17th District, who was elected to the state Legislature and will be leaving the council in mid-April, Gary Halverson, who is running unopposed to succeed Baldeh, and county Sup. Andrew Schauer, 21st District, support aiding the homeless but oppose the shelter site near East Towne.
Porchlight has long set a low barrier for entry to its facilities to get as many men off the street as possible, yet received few complaints from neighbors during the three-plus decades it sheltered men in church basements and temporary locations, Thennes said.
After moving from basements to larger spaces, the nonprofit has further relaxed rules that banned entry for those who’ve been drinking or exceeded a 90-day stay limit for a year, she said. The temporary facilities gave room for social distancing and more personal space to avoid or de-escalate conflict and give those with mental health or substance abuse issues more privacy.
At the current temporary shelter and proposed permanent one, men can queue up for intake inside and no one goes outside except when accompanied by staff, she said. Porchlight has added staff, so seven paid personnel are on site each night. When men were in the basements, they waited outside for intake, and after that process was completed there was only one overnight employee at each of three sites, she said.
Now, Porchlight will add two private security positions each night and, after health screening, ask guests to pass through weapons screening that will entail removing cell phone, keys, change, and putting belongings on a table so they can be wanded.
“I expect the majority of guests are going to grumble that it’s taking longer,” Thennes said. “I think that we’ll adjust in time.”
Ald. Syed Abbas, 12th District, who represents the area including the Warner Park and Fleet Services Building sites, said he received only a few complaints at the former location that were quickly resolved by Porchlight and has received none at the latter. “It was going very smoothly,” he said.
“A high-functioning (permanent) shelter will be one that addresses safety and security needs which, if we do it right, will encompass design features, intake policies and protocols, and strong partnerships and communication between the shelter operator, law enforcement and surrounding property owners and residents,” said Jim O’Keefe, city community development director.
“Everyone deserves to be sheltered,” Thennes said. “We don’t get many complaints. That’s what will happen at the East Towne location.”
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