The Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center will open! Finally!

Yesterday was the press conference and ribbon-cutting for The Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center for the homeless that will open on October 16 on East Washington Ave. It is a wonderful facility that will offer basic necessities like showers and laundry, separate areas for families and single adults, and space for a wide range of services on the second floor.

I toured the facility a couple of weeks ago with members of Downtown Madison Inc.’s Quality of Life and Safety Committee, where discussion of such a facility has been on the agenda for at least six years. As the tour ended and we chatted about our reaction to the facility, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I recalled the years, all of the hard work and advocacy that were part of this process. I had occasion earlier in the work to go back through this blog and re-read some of my pieces advocating for a permanent day center, as well as my expressions of concern as we seemed to scramble every year with the onset of cold weather to provide somewhere for homeless people to stay warm during the day.

I became involved in efforts to establish a daytime resource center in 2011 when two events focused attention on the problem. The Central Library was scheduled to close for renovation and the State Capitol, which had traditionally served as informal daytime shelter for homeless people continued to restrict access in the wake of the protests in early 2011. Temporary facilities were provided in the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, but an effort began especially on the part of County government to locate and fund space for a permanent day center. I worked with people who had operated the temporary shelter during one of those winters to create a non-profit that would operate a new facility under contract from the County and over the next several years, several attempts were made to purchase property and begin the process of establishing a day center. Our group finally gave up out of frustration and sheer exhaustion and I turned my attention to other matters.

I was excited and more than a little skeptical when I learned that the County had acquired the property at 615 E. Wash for a permanent daytime resource center. It had purchased another property a few blocks away some time earlier but problems had arisen and given what had happened on past occasions, I suspected that a combination of neighborhood opposition, continued wrangling between the county and city, and the lack of an outside agency with a track record and adequate resources would probably result in failure at this location as well.

My skepticism was tempered when I had the opportunity to meet with Jackson Fonder, the Executive Director of Catholic Charities, the agency that was granted the contract to operate the facility. His competence, excitement, and commitment to the project were obvious and as our first meeting ended, I offered to help with the effort in any way I could. Eventually, Fonder put together a Community Advisory Team consisting of representatives from across the community to offer feedback as the project developed. As a member of that group, it has been a great joy to see at close hand the project’s development, and to build relationships with people from business, government, and the non-profit sector.

It is also a great joy to see what a facility designed and built out for the purpose can look like. Fonder and his associates visited similar facilities across the country, volunteering in them as they visited. This exposure to other cities and other facilities helped clarify for them best practices related to the operations of a daytime resource center and think carefully and creatively about what services such a facility should provide.

As I left the gathering yesterday, I reflected on the significance of the lengthy and difficult process, the amazing results, and what we might learn for future such efforts in our community. Personally, I am immensely grateful for all those who participated in these efforts, and especially for county staff and elected officials who didn’t give up in spite of all of the problems they encountered over the years. I’m also incredibly grateful for Catholic Charities and for Jackson Fonder’s leadership.

I’m thrilled not only that homeless people will have shelter every day throughout the day but that The Beacon will offer access to the services homeless people need to improve their situation.

There’s one other thought that has been running through my head since I first toured the facility several weeks ago. Now we have a state-of-the-art daytime resource center. What might be possible if we made the same effort to create adequate overnight housing for single adults and for families? Our emergency shelter system is woefully inadequate both in terms of the quality of the facilities and in that they cannot provide for all of those in need, especially homeless families. The Beacon shows us what a well-designed facility can look like; it demonstrates that while it may have taken almost a decade, our community can find solutions to the problems we face. And it sheds a bright light on all of the other needs in our community that we still need to address.

Here’s a video tour of The Beacon:

Here’s an article on The Beacon from today’s Cap Times

The story from WKOW.

 

 

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Update on the Beacon, Madison’s new day resource center

In around fifty days, the Beacon, Madison’s long-overdue day resource center for the homeless, is scheduled to open. It’s a project I’ve been involved in off and on for six years and I now serve on the Beacon’s Community Advisory Team. The Beacon is intended to provide a one-stop location for services for individuals and families, providing everything from showers and laundry facilities to lunch, employment and other services. Construction is nearing completion.

As with any project of this magnitude, there are bumps along the road. One of the most significant came to public attention this week when it was revealed that there is a significant gap in providing funding for ongoing operations. Details are here.

The community’s response has been disappointing. I read responses on social media from  homeless advocates that focused on the original process that resulted in granting Catholic Charities the contract to operate the Beacon. Advocates have also questioned the size of the annual operating budget. I would hope that advocates would focus their energies on the Beacon’s success.

The city is reluctant to provide additional funding. In the linked article, Jim O’Keefe suggested cutting the operating budget, even though it is based on in-depth study of best practices in such facilities across the country. And given the city’s track record with the Rethke Terrace Housing First project, where the operating budget didn’t initially cover the services necessary to succeed, its top priority should be providing adequate funding.

I’m optimistic that this problem will be solved and that the Beacon will open on schedule. It’s certainly the single most important development in our community’s response to homelessness since I arrived in Madison in 2009, and it may be the most important such development since the founding of the men’s drop-in shelter.

In the meantime, let’s encourage the stakeholders to sit down and figure out how to fund the Beacon in such a way that its mission to provide services to homeless people, to help them transition from the streets to permanent housing, and to flourish as human beings, is a success.

 

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.