In a quiet corner of the east side, adjacent to East-Towne mall, there is a struggle brewing that has thrown the mayor’s office, residents, advocates for the homeless and property developers into a showdown, with millions of dollars potentially on the line.
The issue arose from the proposed men’s shelter, planned to be located on Zeier road.
According to reports, this shelter would be the first of its kind in Madison. It would be a space designed to hold dozens and perhaps even hundreds of Madison’s homeless male citizens.
Reports suggest this project is an important step for homeless advocates who have been asking for such a facility for years. Right now, the city has made do with makeshift and temporary shelters, usually located in the basements of churches or public buildings scattered throughout the downtown area.
This new project comes with a large investment from both the city and county. According to Wisconsin State Journal reporting, it comes with a price tag of over $6 million, with half from the city and the other half from the county.
The State Journal also said Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway recently visited the site and has supported the facility since its inception. And this support from city leadership has invigorated the homeless advocacy community.
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Porchlight is an advocacy group that operates many of Madison’s current shelters. Porchlight employee Jessica Mathis said she was excited by the possibilities presented by having access to such a facility.
Mathis said after a years-long wait for funding to create a permanent, large-scale shelter, the COVID-19 pandemic finally forced the issue by shuttering many of the current shelters and driving city leaders to address the situation.
“We have been looking to add a facility like this for honestly 30 years and it allows us to focus more energy on services instead of looking for facilities,” Mathis said.
Mathis said without a stable shelter, conditions for the homeless population have only become worse, as they have been forced to spend time, energy and money finding housing.
Mathis said while some residents push back against the idea of having a shelter in their community, the situation will only worsen in residential neighborhoods if homeless Madisonians can’t find lodging.
Mathis said when citizens experiencing homelessness don’t have access to housing, the whole community suffers consequences.
“[The homeless] are there whether or not the shelter is there,” Mathis said.
Ald. Samba Baldeh of District 17, the district that represents the section of Madison in which the shelter would be located, said he acknowledges the need for homeless services from the city but said the proposed site is flawed.
Baldeh said the residents of District 17 pushed back against the shelter swiftly and unanimously. Baldeh said he held a meeting with over 50 constituents who expressed what Baldeh described as “universal opposition” towards the shelter project.
Baldeh said many of those he represents are concerned about potential economic declines from the facility’s image.
These concerns are not unfounded. The development firm Paramount from Sarasota Florida said they are considering pulling out of a proposed development project in the area due to concerns about the shelter.
This development was expected to carry a price tag of $100 million or more and generate new income for the city. While the project is still in a nascent stage, its future seems to be jeopardized by the city’s plans to move forward with the shelter, according to the State Journal.
Paramount representative Bill Cutler told the Wisconsin State Journal that development “can’t proceed” if the plans for the shelter continue.
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Concerns are not limited to the economic impacts either. Foremost of Baldeh’s concerns is the location.
Baldeh said most of Madison’s homeless population currently lives downtown, where most existing shelters are located. Baldeh said if the city moves these shelters’ resources to the east side, it would get harder to move people living downtown to the east side and back every day, especially when they need to pay for transportation.
“When you have people having to pay four to eight dollars just to make it to the services they require, it presents a huge hurdle for access,” Baldeh said.
As an alternative, Baldeh said he supports the city changing locations and placing the shelter at the temporary site established at the former fleet building on East Washington.
Baldeh said this site would be centrally located, and since the city has already invested in funding the temporary shelter, it would be beneficial to commit to that location.
Baldeh said creating a shelter space at the East Washington location would require moving a proposed marketplace to a new location, but Baldeh said he believes moving the market would be cheaper, easier and receive less pushback from locals.
“When you have an existing facility with parking and road access, this makes for a much better location for the market as opposed to the other site, which lacks these forms of access, and actually has better access to homeless services,” Baldeh said.
Baldeh called the decision to push the shelter to the east-side an “out of sight out of mind” mentality from the city, which decreases the homeless population downtown, but fails to provide the support and services necessary to help them.
By swapping out the market and the shelter, Baldeh said he believes the city can have the best of both worlds by boosting the economy of District 17, while also keeping the shelters close to existing homeless programs and services that exist in the downtown area.