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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -2.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Advocates push Dane County to open homeless day shelter before winter
County officials contemplate temporary fixes amidst delays
Williams: "The way things are going right now there's not going to be a day shelter until halfway through the wintertime."
Williams: "The way things are going right now there's not going to be a day shelter until halfway through the wintertime."

Dozens of homeless people and their allies came before a county committee Tuesday night with a long list of questions about why there still is no concrete plan for opening a permanent day resource center.

Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, summed up their complaints best when she told Dane County's Homeless Issues Committee: "People are looking for answers. This is the third year in a row that we're going into winter without a plan."

The county had hoped to have a permanent resource center — offering lockers, showers, meals and connections to housing, job and social services — up and running already. In November 2012, the Dane County Board allocated $600,000 to build or purchase a space that could be used for a day shelter. At the time, County Board Chairman John Hendrick hoped it would be open by July 1.

But county staff has not yet found a suitable site. A request for proposals this summer turned up just two possibilities: Wiggies Bar at 1901 Aberg Ave. on the north side and the Madison Area Rehabilitation Centers Inc. at 3939 Lien Rd., near East Towne Mall. Although many advocates like the MARC building, both sites were rejected as being too far from the downtown area, where most homeless people sleep.

"The unhoused people that gave us input felt really strongly it needed to be accessible to homeless people -- people sheltered overnight in the downtown shelters," says Lynn Green, director of Dane County Human Services.

Part of the problem, Green says, is that an obvious place to locate a shelter is on East Washington Avenue. But that corridor is seeing a boom in development. "None of the buildings on East Washington will touch us," Green says. "They're sitting there waiting for development. Many of them won't even return our calls."

The county operated a well-regarded resource center on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue last year. But County Executive Joe Parisi and the County Board both promised that location's neighbor, the Rainbow Project, not to renew a lease there.

County officials insist they're still pursuing a permanent resource center. Says Hendrick: "As far as having something in place by Nov. 1, I'm not giving up hope that we still could have a building."

The homeless issues committee agreed to look beyond the downtown core to anyplace on a bus line that has regular service, including weekends and holidays.

But county officials increasingly find themselves in the same situation as last year, scrambling to find a temporary solution as winter approaches. "The way things are going right now there's not going to be a day shelter until halfway through the wintertime," says Ulysses Williams, a former homeless man who sits on the committee.

Green says that Dane County and Madison are looking at ways to increase the capacity of current day services. Bethel Lutheran Church on Wisconsin Avenue operates a program for the homeless three days a week but might be able to expand to five, says Mark Wilson, who runs the church's homeless outreach. The county might also rely more on Hospitality House, a day shelter run by Porchlight, which is about three miles from downtown on the south side.

Officials also hope the renovated Central Library, which will reopen in September, can take some of the pressure off the homeless services.

"We have to acknowledge that will be reopening and back in the mix," says Green. "The library has been wonderful to acknowledge they're a service for everybody."

Sarah Gillmore, who under the auspices of Porchlight ran the shelter last year and has proposed running the permanent resource center, is also looking to pitch in with a temporary solution. Gillmore says St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 605 Spruce St., has offered its facilities for homeless services this winter. She anticipates operating a program on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

"This is not a solution," Gillmore says. "This is to say that we're not giving up. We're going to stay out there."

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