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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  Light Snow
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Closing reception celebrates community at East Washington daytime warming shelter
Sarah Gillmore (center): "Everyone has learned how to co-exist which has really been a beautiful thing."
Sarah Gillmore (center): "Everyone has learned how to co-exist which has really been a beautiful thing."
Credit:John Waters

Downtown Madison's daytime warming shelter on East Washington Avenue is closing on March 31, but the atmosphere at Thursday afternoon's volunteer appreciation reception is positive, reflecting a group that is proud to show off its unique community.

About 100 people gather, a mixture of homeless people and shelter volunteers, to look back on what they have accomplished since the shelter opened at the end of November. Standing in the TV room, surrounded by donated books, chairs -- and yes, televisions -- manager Sarah Gillmore hands out certificates.

"There is a total of three paid staff," Gillmore says. "So everything from food to cleaning to picking up trash came from guest volunteers."

Cheers erupt from those seated in the mismatched chairs sprawled around the room as people accept appreciation certificates from Gillmore. Volunteer Ronnie Barbett, who is currently homeless, says the group's focus on building a community has been vital.

"What is unique about this is it gave everyone a place to congregate, like a family," Barbett says. "Men and women, couples, the people sleep in parks and under bridges, everyone is represented here and they can all get information and support."

Gillmore says the 100 to 150 people who used the shelter every day will now have to find somewhere else to spend their time until a permanent day shelter opens, which she hopes will happen by November. But she says the experiment has been a success.

"We knew this would be a pilot project," Gillmore says. "We needed to show that we can be self-governing. Everyone has learned how to co-exist which has really been a beautiful thing."

The city acknowledged the success of the program on March 19, when the Madison Common Council approved a written commendation for shelter, which has been funded by Dane County and operated by Porchlight.

UW-Madison graduate student Spring Greeney started volunteering at the shelter in February and says she was "really blown away by the community. It's so cohesive. They say hi to each other by name, but it's not a closed community. I immediately felt welcome."

Greeney hopes that the shelter will be reopened at some point, as does a man who identifies himself as "Texas," who both used and volunteered at the shelter.

"I have a job," says Texas. "I just need housing, I can't be out on the street all the time."

He explains that services like the computer room were what kept him coming back.

"You go to the library for only two hours a day," he says. "A lot of us have to library hop."

Texas says after the shelter closes he will go back to hanging around places like UW-Madison's Memorial Library when he is not working.

As the issue of homelessness in the city continues to perplex officials, Gillmore hopes people can understand that almost all of the people dealing with homelessness are "actively pursuing changes in their lives."

"The small minority, like any group, get the most attention," she says. "You have to be open and aware -- the reality is that homelessness can happen to anybody."

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