With the Wisconsin winter coming, the harsher weather and lack of public resources make life for the city’s homeless even more difficult.
Heidi Wegleitner, Dane County Board supervisor for District 2, said the colder temperatures make living in one’s car or on the street even less comfortable, and while the city’s shelters will accept anyone when the temperature falls below 20 degrees, they have nowhere to go if it’s 21 degrees or higher.
The city’s shelters have annual limits on how many days people and families can stay there. Single individuals are limited to 60 days a year, and families get 90 days, Wegleitner said. Other public buildings, such as the City County Building and the Madison Municipal Building, used to provide benches and chairs for homeless individuals to use during the day, but have since been reduced or completely removed.
Keeping these public spaces open for the city’s homeless is the priority, she said.
“Our number one job, I would think, as public officials is to keep people safe, and they’re not safe when they’re outside in the winter,” Wegleitner said.
One highly debated project the city and Dane County have been trying to see fulfilled is a homeless daytime resource center, Dane County Board Supervisor Leland Pan, District 5, said.
However, Pan said the resource center has run into a number of issues that have prevented any progress being made.
“I think that’s a huge problem,” Pan said. “It’s something that the county has continuously worked on, and certainly I don’t want to make it sound like my colleagues have not been working on it because they’ve been working on it tirelessly.”
The County Board did approve the purchase of property at 1490 Martin St., off Fish Hatchery Road, which is currently being used by Porchlight Inc. as a hospitality center, Pan said. The idea was for the county to expand the center into a more comprehensive resource center, adding things like laundry machines and showers.
The process of getting a day center built, however, is moving along slowly.
The Town of Madison, where the hospitality center is located, has filed a lawsuit against the county. Pan said the motive behind the lawsuit was a lack of communication with the township, which felt like it was not properly consulted in the process of determining how the site will be used and re-zoned.
Pan said while he is part of the group of county officials involved in this, he does understand the township’s frustrations with the project.
“I think anytime we make a decision with other municipalities we have to make sure they’re included from day one,” Pan said. “That was one of the frustrations for me in the process of the daytime resource center, which was how out of the loop not only other communities were, but homeless people and some supervisors, too. It felt like a very top-down process and I don’t think that was the right way to go for this particular project.”
Wegleitner said while she thinks the county will win the case in circuit court, the site on Martin Street is not much of a solution.
The site is “riddled with problems,” she said, and under the current plan, the proposed resource center will not be able to accommodate more than six children, will not have an adequate space for play areas for those kids and will be too far from the downtown shelter and other resources.
“It’s not really a win to me,” Wegleitner said. “It’s not going to solve the problem.”
Wegleitner said ideally she would like to see a location closer to downtown chosen for the resource center, making it easier to use public transportation and other resources like Porchlight and the Madison Public Library.
Pan said the county has put money toward other things in the meantime, such as a multi-million dollar affordable housing fund and the Bethel Lutheran Church’s Homeless Ministry Support Services, which he said is acting as a “de facto daytime resource center.”
In addition, Pan said the county has put in extra funding for the operation of Briarpatch youth services near homeless shelters. Briarpatch is a service that helps homeless youths, and Pan said the city hopes these services will be operational in 2015.
Homeless youths around Madison present a different set of issues, Pan said, as they do not have access to many services if they are under 18 years old.
While the old mentality for helping homeless youths was to reconnect them with their homes, Pan said often the reason they ran away is because they do not feel safe in their home.
Pan said between 20 and 30 percent of homeless people identify as LGBT, and failure of their parents to accept their sexuality is a big problem with homeless youths.
“It would actually be dangerous to their well-being to go back home to their parents who are possibly physically abusive,” Pan said.
With or without a resource center this winter, Pan said helping the homeless is a big priority for both Madison and Dane County.
“The city and county realize this is a crisis they really have to get together and work on,” Pan said.