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Where will they Sleep? And Other Questions about the Day Shelter

Note added 3-6-2016 by the author: On Wednesday, September 23rd, an article on the Wisconsin State Journal website announced "County Executive Joe Parisi on Wednesday announced that the county has an accepted offer to purchase for $1.42 million the former Messner Inc. property at 1326 E. Washington Ave." This was big news to me (and most others) and I published this blog article four days later. 

The following was an attempt to express my frustration about an overt breach in process and my wariness about rushing a project that would have impact beyond its immediate scope. My curiosity led me to ask questions, and the answers I got left me distrustful of the plan. 

Re-reading what I wrote, now five months later, I'm sure I could have done a better job of expressing my concerns. Unfortunately, the project has stalled as the details continue to be unclear. This February article summarizes the situation.

The Lodestar Day Resource Center is a model for the proposed Day Shelter on the corner of East Washington Avenue and Baldwin Streets in Madison. On Friday, a Madison social worker attempted to call Lodestar in Phoenix seven times to ask some questions. Specifically, she was interested in the fact that the day shelter, like the one proposed for Madison, has no overnight facility, as this is not typical.

Day shelters are only open during business hours. Most others, I understand, have an over-night shelter associated with it so that folks have a place to go when the doors close.
Unfortunately, no one ever answered the phone at Lodestar
* * * * *

The City of Madison is receiving national attention in recent weeks. Along with other liberal cities, Madison attracts people who need services, services which may be more forthcoming and available here. This New York Times article points out the homeless population has increased 40% in four years. 

The same article also points out that our Mayor is not happy about the problems associated with this increase, specifically public drug use, public urination/defecation, and the health concerns of having needles left laying around. 

Just last week, the County announced they have an option to buy the Messner building on the 1300 block East Washington to retrofit for a permanent Day Shelter. This building is a few blocks from my house and shares a back fence with the Tenney Nursery School and Parent Center, where my youngest daughter goes to school. 

I saw the article posted on the neighborhood Facebook page, then read on the neighorhood listserv that same day this comment from County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner:

I will be advocating for county funding security improvements for the Tenney Parent Nursery Center as we provided with the Rainbow Project when we operated a day shelter at 827 E. Washington Ave.

This got my attention. Security improvements...

 * * * * *

The Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, where I live and about which I write here at Between Two Lakes, is a downtown residential neighborhood. In recent years, two temporary Day Shelters for the homeless have been located in the neighborhood along East Washington Avenue. From 2011-2012 on the 700 block, then the following winter on the 800 block. They caused some problems, but the facilities were temporary.

The City of Madison was not involved in the plan to purchase the Messner building to build a permanent Day Shelter, and in fact local officials learned about it the same way neighborhood residents learned about it: in this newspaper article

Over the past few days, it has been explained to me by more than a few people, in a more than a few ways, that the 'City of Madison' and 'The County' do not get along. You may think, duh, because maybe this is common knowledge. I just didn't realize the extent to which they refuse to work together, let alone talk to each other.

This is an unfortunate relationship because the County represents the State of Wisconsin. Madison is located in Dane County and is subservient to the County's needs. In other words, the County can tell the City that it will do that within city limits. 

However, there is a process for doing things and this process was ignored.   

The City may go a bit overboard, but if they are going to replace a square of sidewalk in front of a house, the owner of the house is notified first to explain the situation, then to ask for input, then to schedule the date of service. It is a process.

Here is the County's stated process, from their published report, for siting a Day Shelter:

  1. -County real estate staff search
  2. -Consult with local officials to identify potential sites
  3. -Request for proposals (optional)
  4. -Input from temporary resource center operator
  5. -Public hearing(s) prior to acquisition to get community input on general location or specific sites
  6. -Neighborhood meetings for each prospective site
  7. -Identify location 
  8. -Seek County board approval
  9. -Application for zoning/conditional use if necessary (10 weeks lead time)

At least steps 5 and 6 were skipped. Any project with this level of impact deserves neighborhood input and consideration of surrounding consequences. The site has been selected with an option to purchase. I understand that the natural next step is for the City to issue a Conditional Use Permit. In other words, despite the tone of the article, this is not yet a done deal.

The County has done this before, side-stepped and side-swiped the City in order to attempt to build a day shelter. In 2012, as reported in the Wisconsin State Journal

"It appears that the city of Madison is the chosen municipality for locating a day shelter, yet our professional staff were not consulted and asked to assist in vetting potential sites," the mayor wrote to Parisi. 

Joe Parisi is the Dane County Executive who has also arranged for the purchase of the Messner building last week.

* * * * *

Regular readers know that I'm a fan of the 'lighter, quicker, cheaper' model of getting things done a lot of the time. Building a permanent day shelter that includes things like lockers and showers, as well as meeting rooms for regularly scheduled mental health and drug treatment services, seems to me to be the opposite of something that should be done quickly, as it is not light or cheap. 

The news article explains that over $1 million in renovations of the Messner building will begin immediately, and some hope it can be used as soon as this winter.

At the time the article published, there were no public input meetings scheduled. 

As of Sunday, September 27th, four days after the public announcement via a newspaper article, there is now a public meeting scheduled for Wednesday, October 7th at 7PM at the Messner Building, 1326 E. Washington Avenue.

* * * * *

As a neighbor, I have these questions:

- The majority of the examples shared* as 'models' upon which this Day Shelter is based also offer overnight facilities. The proposed East Washington Day Shelter will be closed after business hours. What is the plan? Where will people go, after hours?

-The surrounding parks are Burr Jones, the Yahara Riverway, Tenney Park, Central Park, BB Clark, Morrison Park, Orton Park, Reynolds Park and James Madison Park. Does the Parks Department have the budget to maintain a high standard of safety and offer the additional needed facilities (public bathrooms) for a greater concentration of homeless people?

-How does the Day Center fit into the Cap East plan for future development? Was the Day Shelter discussed in relationship to other projects underway?

-How will Tenney Nursery and Parent Center fare? It shares the block with the proposed Day Center and is a unique neighborhood business and resource, and parent cooperative established in 1979. Was this considered when the site was selected?

Why place a Day Shelter alongside a nursery school?

My fourth question comes after reading a letter printed in the Wisconsin State Journal. It was written in 2012 by the Director of the Rainbow Project, a clinic that serves children and their families. She strongly and emphatically opposed placing the temporary day shelter next to the Rainbow Project, which is located at 831 East Washington. She argues that known sex offenders will be in close proximity to the women and children served by Rainbow Project, and that she feels her voice is not being heard.

No one has answered our inquiries about how the shelter staff will monitor registered sex offenders who are legally prohibited to reside near a facility where children are present.

We believe homeless individuals need a safe and warm shelter during the winter, and they need permanent housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment. We serve some homeless families and know that many of them have reported not feeling safe in shelters.
Unlike Downtown businesses worried about the homeless and the impact from a dollar perspective, we are worried about safety of our consumers. We do not have the clout and dollars to pressure decision makers to influence where shelters are located.
We feel we have been ignored and placated because our consumers do not vote, and we are a small nonprofit. We will not be the scapegoats for this community's poverty and homeless problems.
We have also been caught in the crossfire between the city and county accusing each other of not doing enough for the homeless. It is the county's attempt to publicly show they are doing something, but it is clearly at the expense of the young children and adult caregivers we work with.

I hope neighborhood parents voices will not similarly be discounted. Despite this plea copied in part above, the shelter was opened next door at 827 E. Washington. 

* * * * *

Why is our neighborhood again caught in this crossfire between the County and the City? 

Your thoughts can be emailed to these people:

  • Our alder Ledell Zellers:
  • Our district County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner:
  • Mayor's Office:
  • City Planning:

* Examples provided  from County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner via email: 
"Here are a few examples.   Some of these also have overnight shelter,  but the county is planning only for a day center in accordance with the 2/13 report." -Heidi on 9/25/2015
St. Paul

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