Movement on the homeless shelter?

The long-awaited and overdue feasibility study commissioned by the City of Madison has finally been completed. Architects are proposing several alternatives for using a city-owned property on S. Fairchild St. for a permanent men’s homeless shelter. You can read about their ideas here.

We’ve been waiting for this report for months and its completion is another step in what might be an exciting and very different future both for homeless men in Madison and for Grace Church. The Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984 on a one-year trial basis and we’ve hosted ever since. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to find alternative locations and better solutions, but nothing ever came of them.

A recent series of articles in the Madison State Journal have provided a comprehensive and troubling overview of Madison’s homeless problems and the inadequacies of our shelter system. Those articles are available here.

This is truly a wonderful opportunity but there are significant challenges still to come. The neighborhood meeting on Monday night will be an opportunity to hear about the possibilities and to provide feedback to the architects, city staff, and elected leaders. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be financial. While the city is willing to provide the property, there are no public funds available for renovation of the space. At this point, we don’t have any idea of what those costs might be, and whether the private sector can produce the funds necessary.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the future. We have found a location that could work which is an important step forward and in conversations and meetings I’ve been with other stakeholders, there seems to be a great deal of excitement about the possibility of a new shelter designed for our current needs.

But that leaves a final question. What does all this mean for Grace Church. We have hosted the shelter for over thirty years, and over that time, ministry to and with the homeless has become part of our identity. We have created enormous good will throughout the community because of the shelter’s presence here, and when there is negative publicity, we suffer as well.

If and when the shelter moves, the effects of that move on Grace will be significant. We will have to think about how we might continue to engage in ministry with the homeless; how we might continue to support the work of the shelter and its current operator Porchlight. Beyond that, Grace will have to discern anew what the best uses of our space might be and how best we might share Christ’s love with our neighbors. Those conversations will be exciting as well and I look forward to them.


Madison’s Mayor Trump: The Criminalization of homelessness

The Philosophers’ Stones are gone; as of October 1, the City-County Building will no longer be a place of sanctuary for homeless people. Mayor Soglin has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour. has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour.  has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour. It seems that the Mayor is putting into action for Madison’s homeless population what Donald Trump is proposing for undocumented aliens–deporting them all. Certainly, he’s been successful in riling up passions (and eventually bringing other politicians into line with him–this was the third vote on the ban at the City-County Building).

But just like Trump’s ideas, criminalizing homelessness won’t work.. In the first place, there are serious constitutional questions about the Mayor’s proposed ordinance. And second, if there is no place for homeless people to sleep, then I suppose they’ll be arrested and jailed (where at least they’ll have a roof over their heads and meals.

The harsh reality is that we don’t have housing for all of the people who need. The vacancy rate in Madison hovers around 2%, and although I’ve heard rumors that there are signs that developers have nearly saturated the market for upscale student housing, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest in providing adequate, affordable housing in Madison or Dane County.

And then there’s this statistic from the Salvation Army today. They can accommodate at most 18-21 people in their emergency shelter. On August 31, 2015, 80 women and children sought shelter there.

We know what works. Housing First programs in places like Salt Lake City have successfully cut the numbers of chronic people at a significant cost savings. It’s estimated that on average, a homeless person costs taxpayers around $30,000/yr in services, especially emergency services (ER, police). Mayor Soglin likes to talk about Housing First, but he doesn’t actually want to commit city resources to providing housing for people on the scale necessary. Mayor, that’s sixty women and children who didn’t have a place to stay last night!

Where will Madison’s homeless go? I know the Mayor hopes they’ll all go back to where they came from. My guess is they’ll try to hide and eke out an existence where cops and politicians won’t see them. And if they do, the Mayor will have solved his problem. Out of sight, out of mind.

Moving the men’s drop-in shelter from Grace

An article by Pat Schneider provides some background on the potential move. It is an exciting prospect for the future of homeless services in Madison, and for Grace Church, too. If the shelter moves, we will engage the community and our congregation in a conversation about our future ministry and mission in a spot where we have been worshiping and serving God for over 150 years. At the same time, we will continue to advocate for “the least of these.”

The county plays hardball over the day shelter and the homeless community loses

So this bit of news came out today. Dane County is threatening to sue the Town of Madison over its continued legal efforts to prevent the County from opening a day shelter.

“The Town of Madison continues to stonewall the operation of a day resource center at the exact location where services to the homeless have been provided for ten years,” Parisi said in a statement.

Several observations:

1) It sounds like it’s getting personal
2) The Town of Madison has 120 days to respond, delaying the timeline even more
3) what a great way to gain local support for the facility!
4) I wrote weeks ago that I thought the county should abandon this location and find alternatives, but anyone watching this whole process will think twice about having the county as a neighbor.

Sigh… Madison’s homeless will be left out in the cold this winter

So after all that, there won’t be a comprehensive day resource center for the homeless in Madison or Dane County any time soon. I’ve not blogged about the issue recently but the Town of Madison has decided to appeal the Board of Adjustments’ ruling granting the zoning variance to the County for 1490 Martin Street. The town’s opposition to the site had delayed the purchase and renovation of the facility throughout the summer and into the fall. I attended a meeting last week where the best-case scenario was that the County could take possession on January 1, 2015. The Town’s decision to appeal delays that indefinitely.

This raises two important issues. The first is the immediate one. There are practically no plans in place to provide day shelter this winter. There have been several meetings trying to cobble together the same network of services that were available last winter. There’s been some resistance from providers and last year’s experience shows the need for advance planning and provision for weekends when several of the largest providers are not open.

The second issue is long-term. It’s my judgment that at this point the County should acknowledge that the Town of Madison’s delaying tactics succeeded. I suspect, although I do not know, that 1490 Martin St. was latched to by County Staff as an easy solution. It was already being used as a de facto day shelter and the bureaucrats didn’t expect vocal opposition from the neighborhood (something that can be anticipated with the attempted siting of any such facility). And from my perspective, the County Board deserves some criticism for passing the matter off to staff without engaging in the difficult political of finding and securing a location. Add to that the general opposition of the homeless community and their advocates to the Martin Street location, what we have is a classic example of how not to accomplish something in government.

No doubt the scramble is on. We may see a flurry of efforts in the coming days to develop a short-term solution but such temporary efforts bring their own level of uncertainty and chaos, both to the guests who seek services and to those who seek to provide them. Helping people emerge from homelessness and become contributing members of society requires dedicated, long-term engagement. When you’re not sure where you might seek assistance (or a warm place to spend the day) on top of not being sure where you’re going to be spending the night, committing oneself to breaking out of the cycle of homelessness becomes even more daunting.


It wasn’t a pretty sight–Thoughts on the meeting of the Dane County Board of Supervisors

I attended the Dane County Board of Supervisors meeting last night where I spoke in support of the resolution to purchase 1490 Martin St. for a permanent day resource center (The gist of my remarks are here). Coincidentally, a staff member from the Turkish parliament was there to observe the proceedings. He is interested in democracy and local politics. Both of us learned a great deal.

It wasn’t especially edifying. Many people spoke in opposition to the resolution. A large number of those who expressed their opposition were homeless themselves or advocates for the homeless. Many other opponents are neighbors of the facility. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. One heard again and again from neighbors about the problems center guests would bring into the neighborhood; the danger they presented. These are arguments brought up every time efforts are made to expand services or locate new programs and facilities in neighborhoods, towns, or cities throughout Dane County and the US. These are arguments some of those same progressives will angrily rebut when their own efforts are being challenged. Last night, however, because NIMBY sentiments played into progressives’ hands, the arguments were allowed to stand.

I’m grateful for those who have worked so hard over the last months and years to make the day center a reality and I am eager to watch how plans for transportation and renovation move forward. I am also excited to see the Day Center open on November 1. It’s the culmination of many people’s dreams and will fill a huge gap in our community’s services for the homeless.

A report of the meeting is available here.


Why I support the proposed site for the day resource center

The Dane County Board of Supervisors will be debating a resolution to purchase a property on Martin Street to be used for a Homeless Day Resource Center. In recent weeks there’s been a good deal of debate about the merits of the location and various problems including adequate transportation and water supply. This is only the latest chapter in an ongoing saga about which I’ve written repeatedly over the last several years.

There are valid concerns about the location. It has been the site of Porchlight’s Hospitality House which has operated in part as a day shelter. Over the years, transportation has been inadequate. The location is just off of a major bus line, but it is not downtown and the vans that have shuttled guests from downtown homeless shelters and other agencies have not always operated at an optimal capacity.

But I think efforts to seek a thirty-day delay in the purchase of the property are misguided. I doubt that any amount of money would be able to shake loose a suitable downtown location from property owners, and even if it were miraculously able to do so, a downtown site would still have to overcome massive resistance from downtown residents, business owners, as well as city staff, alders, and the mayor. So at the end of the thirty day delay, we would be left with one option on the table, the same Martin Street property with thirty fewer days to prepare for a November 1 opening date.

A delay, or worse yet, a County Board vote against the purchase of the property, would make it more likely that we would face another winter with cobbled-together and inadequate provisions for resources for homeless people.

There comes a time when advocates have to re-shape their visions and hopes for the futures to reflect political and community realities. This seems to be one of those times. The tentative plans for the center include necessary services like laundry, showers, and storage as well as opportunities for guests to connect with social service agencies that can help them find housing and the other support they need. Supervisors and homeless advocates should work together in the coming months to ensure that the important questions are answered adequately, issues resolved, and that the Day Center will be ready to serve the homeless community at the earliest possible date.

Recent articles on the controversy are here and here.