Dane County and the City of Madison announced the new location for a men’s homeless shelter Jan. 28, which will become the first permanent men’s shelter in Madison since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shelter’s new location is at 2002 Zeier Road, according to the press release. The site search began last spring and continued after a deal with a different location in October fell through.

Acquiring the property cost $2.6 million, and the city and county have each included $3 million to their budgets to support renovation and acquisition of the site, according to the press release.

Madison Community Development Grants Supervisor Linette Rhodes said obtaining this site is an encouraging start to this project.

“A lot of us were keeping our fingers crossed for this first major milestone of getting the building into our hands,” Rhodes said.

Choosing the Zeier Road location came down to a number of factors, according to Rhodes and Madison Director of Planning, Community and Economic Development Matt Wachter. These include access to frequent transportation via busing, the ability to offer employment opportunities and healthcare and finding a centralized location within Dane County.

The city also looks to provide better conditions compared to when the shelter temporarily operated in church basements. Short on space and resources, Rhodes said men were often crammed on basement floors with only wool pads to sleep on.

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Wachter said the move to a permanent shelter is in the best interest of everyone involved.

“We need to have a permanent, purposely-designed shelter space that really functions well for the people who are using shelter and for the staff that are going to be there,” Wachter said.

In addition to managing the temporary sites, the city and county faced a new challenge this past year regarding the shelter — operating during the pandemic.

Site operations moved to the Warner Park Community Recreation Center last March, according to an April 14 press release from Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. Months later, Rhodes-Conway announced Nov. 10 the shelter would be moved to the Fleet Services Building with the intention of increasing housing and resource space.

Rhodes said the pandemic is especially stressful for homeless men in the Dane County area.

“Public health is saying, ‘Just go home and wash your hands.’ That’s the guidance they give,” Rhodes said. “If you don’t have a home or even a shelter to go to, how do you respond to a pandemic?”

The city addressed this concern with a detailed response plan, according to Rhodes. At the start of the pandemic, “vulnerable population hotels” were secured to provide shelter for those amongst the Madison homeless male community falling under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s vulnerable population criteria.

The shelter also began working alongside Nurse Disrupted to screen the men and refer them to a medical respite center if presenting symptoms or testing positive for the virus, Rhodes said.

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Looking ahead, Rhodes said these health and safety protocol methods could potentially be implemented at the permanent site.

“These are all the same kind of procedures we’ll think about as we move forward with the new shelter,” Rhodes said.

While many look forward to moving operations to the Zeier Road location, others are hesitant about the decision, according to Ald. Samba Baldeh, District 17. 

In a Jan. 30 blog post reacting to the city and county’s announcement, Baldeh said he agrees on the necessity of a men’s shelter but worries about how the shelter’s location could negatively impact both the homeless community and nearby businesses.

“This is not the right location for a shelter, no matter the services the city is promising to bring along,” Baldeh said in the blog post. “If we are serious about supporting our business community, providing sustainable support and solutions to our homeless community, the east town area needs a holistic approach.”

Baldeh said in an email to The Badger Herald his concerns were referred to committees. Discussion of the site will be return to council March 30.

While there is not yet a set opening date, the city and county are already preparing for the next steps, according to Rhodes and Wachter.

These include finding architects and engineers to begin discussing initial expectations for the shelter as well as design and resource ideas. Selecting service providers and operators will also be a task this summer, Wachter said.

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Wachter said he recognizes the importance of balancing efficiency and precision throughout this process.

“We’re just in these early stages,” Wachter said. “But, we’re going to try to move as quickly as possible because [the shelter] is an urgent need, and we recognize that we need to do this right.”

The city and county also plan on consulting with the public in the upcoming months about which services and resources the new shelter should provide, according to the Jan. 28 press release.

Rhodes said taking this step in choosing a permanent shelter location will benefit the homeless community and Dane County at large.

“This is so important to our community because it gives these men an opportunity to keep themselves safe and continue to work on next steps in their life,” Rhodes said.