Reflections on a decade of shared ministry, 3: Homelessness, part 2

The long quest for a day resource center for people experiencing homelessness could serve as a case study of how Madison’s political system, social service providers, and activists have failed the most vulnerable people in our community. It also provides lessons to anyone interested in developing new institutions or services in our city.

Back in 2011, I attended the first of a series of meetings of local political and civic leaders, service providers, and advocates that were convened to seek solutions to the lack of daytime resources for people experiencing homelessness. The problem became apparent because that the two places where many homeless people spent the days while the overnight shelters were closed were no longer available. The Capitol basement had been declared off-limits to homeless people during the protests in February and March, 2011, and the Central Library was about to close for two years of renovations. I was astounded when the meeting began with many of those present complaining about the then governor’s decision to close the Capitol—seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Capitol was a wholly inadequate space for a vulnerable population in need of many services. In other words, the urgency and extent of the need had gone unaddressed for decades. The stop-gap solutions that were in place were judged by many in the community to be perfectly adequate.

I’ve chronicled much of the story and my involvement in the efforts on this blog. Click on the Homelessness link and scroll down. Temporary shelters were funded for the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. The County put money its operating budget to fund operations of a shelter and secured capital funds to purchase and build out a property. There were a number of locations proposed over the years but all of them fell through because of various reasons, including poor planning and community engagement by county staff and elected officials, neighborhood opposition, and simply unsuitable locations. Many of us who were most actively involved in these efforts over the years grew angry, frustrated, and finally abandoned the quest. Fortunately others persisted and other agencies stepped, most notably Catholic Charities, who received the contract to operate the Day Resource Center. Finally, the Beacon opened in 2018 and is currently welcoming as many as 250 people daily for meals, showers, laundry, and to help them connect with services.

I say this is a case study in how Madison has thought about and responded to homelessness over the decades because there was no effort to examine the adequacy of our response to the community’s needs and no effort to seek better solutions. And there’s also the blame game, seeking to deflect responsibility for the problems we face from ourselves to others—whether it be the former governor, Chicago, or some other entity or individual. It was only when the stop-gap solution collapsed that we admitted the problem and began to seek new solutions and better alternatives.

In some respects, we are at the very same place with regard to the overnight shelters. The Salvation Army is developing plans for new facilities at their E. Washington Ave. property that would more adequately address the needs of the groups they serve there: single women and families. It is also becoming more clear by the day that the current Drop-In Shelter housed at Grace with additional space at St. John’s Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church is inadequate to serve the number of homeless men in our community and to address their needs, providing assistance to help them find housing and connect them with services they need. For example, we lack the facilities to offer comfortable space for the one-on-one conversations with outreach workers and the building is only minimally accessible to people who lack mobility. It lacks air conditioning.

As we think about next steps in our response to the needs of our community, it is clear that the experience with the Day Resource Center will offer us important lessons as we seek to build community-wide support for significant changes in our system of emergency shelter. I, for one, look forward to this process.

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