Welcoming the Homeless to our Neighborhood

For nearly 3 decades, my family has lived in the Tenney Park neighborhood in Madison. It is well known as a welcoming neighborhood where diversity is appreciated and generosity towards our neighbors is the norm. I have previously written about how our neighbors build community by opening up their front yards to neighborhood children, and how our sidewalks facilitate community building.

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But, last week my neighbors, elected officials and I were all surprised when we read the news that the County had signed a contract to purchase a recently closed restaurant supply store to use as a permanent day resource center for people who are homeless. The surprise announcement resulted in many of my neighbors immediately questioning the process amid concerns about how it will impact the neighborhood.

Fortunately, our city alder, Ledell Zellers, and County Board Supervisors Heidi Wegleitner and John Hendrick, have agreed to convene a neighborhood meeting at the Messner’s site on October 7th at 7 PM. This morning I met with Supervisor Wegleitner to learn how this project has the potential for being an integral component to address the needs of Madison’s chronic homeless population, and I plan to attend the October 7th meeting to learn more. She expects County staff and a facilitator to help the meeting run well.

As an attorney, I am well aware that process is important. But, I am equally aware that it can be used destructively. In this case, the County failed to engage the neighborhood before announcing the purchase and plan publicly, which was a genuine breach of good neighborhood planning. However, while my neighbors have every right to complain about the bombshell manner in which this project was announced, that initial mistake should not be used as a cover for yet another neighborhood to invoke the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome to kill a project that our community desperately needs.

Today’s front page news included both our community’s ability and inability to effectively deal with the people who are homeless in our midst. The positive: the first shelter for homeless teens will open tomorrow. The negative: those who are homeless will be no longer be allowed to sleep on the City-County building’s front porch, coincidentally also starting tomorrow.

As I observed some of my neighbors raise the genuine process problems, and other siting concerns, rather than welcoming a needed service into our community, I have chosen to learn more and while questions remain, I am cautiously optimistic that this new day resource center could be an integral piece of solving the long term needs of our neighbors who need housing and other services.

First, some facts:

  • The County board has not yet approved this purchase, and will not consider it until November;
  • The City of Madison must issue a conditional use permit in order for the resource center to operate, and fortunately our Alder serves on the Planning Commission;
  • There is neither a design plan yet, nor an operator for the proposed resource center; and
  • We have had a temporary, but inadequate, resource center just a few blocks closer to the Capitol that has operated without significant problems.

Next, some possibilities:

  • The shelter is intended to provide needed and centralized resources in order to connect people to the services that are integral to gaining housing for them;
  • There is a prioritized wait list for the most vulnerable people who need housing, and local service provider Housing Initiativesrun by Madison school board member Dean Luomos, has had great success providing housing for 550 people who have a mental illness, and will hopefully work with this resource center to provide more housing for those in need;
  • Given the proximity to elementary schools, middle school and a high school, the school district can potentially bring educational support services into the resource center; and
  • There are good models, such as Carpenter’s Place in Rockford, and the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul. We should learn from them.

Of course, proper planning needs to be done, including how to make effective use of the large parking lot next to the building, which could include recreational space and community gardens. But, this planning should be done with a mindset towards making this project a model of success to help our neighbors in need, rather than pushing them away. It was not that long ago that many of my neighbors opposed the siting a village of tiny houses for the homeless near East High school, but the project is now widely considered a success.

Madison is a wonderful place to live: for most of us. But too many of our neighbors struggle every day just to survive and put a roof over their heads. Indeed, when it comes to many quality of life indicators examined through racial disparities, Madison is the worst place in the nation. So, as I have long advocated, let’s use this new resource center as another opportunity to move Madison from worst to first.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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6 thoughts on “Welcoming the Homeless to our Neighborhood

  1. “…temporary, but inadequate, resource center just a few blocks closer to the Capitol that has operated without significant problems.”

    Could you cite your source for characterizing the experience of the East Wash shelter as “without significant problems?” I have an acquaintance who works closely with the police and downtown merchants and stakeholders, who told me that there was actually a significant increase in crime, vandalism, bad behavior, etc. during the time that shelter operated. I myself observed public urination and defecation, drunks walking in the street, and the like, but my anecdotal experience is just that. I’d really like to see the numbers. Thanks.

    • Captain Gloede of the Madison police reported that approximately 100 people per day used the facility at 827. There were 93 calls for police service from Dec. 1, 2013 until the closing on March 31, 2013. Capt. Gloede indicated the number was about what would be expected from such a facility. There were 5 calls for service from The Rainbow Project, a center that provides services to children and their families located next door. Captain Gloede then characterized the typical calls related to this population as “Quality of Life” issues – public intoxication, public urination, yelling and swearing. He said that approximately 10% of the homeless population are responsible for these types of calls to the police. The people in this 10% are mostly struggling with severe mental health challenges and/or alcohol and drug addictions.

  2. I also appreciate your thoughtful comments. I agree we need services like this in our community, but I am concerned that this location abuts and partially wraps around my daughters daycare center. My daughter previously attended a daycare that was situated within a residential program for the homeless and mentally ill, and there were few problems, but in that case, the residents were screened and given their own home. How would you address the issues that might arise in a situation like this, where the users are unlikely to be screened and will be evicted every evening? I will be at the meeting tomorrow, so maybe they will address these concerns then, but I ask that in the meantime you be careful about using the derogatory and aggressive term NIMBY. Those kinds of terms shut down thoughtful conversations and create adversarial positions. The St. Vincent House is much closer to my back yard, and I fully support it. In fact, I might even support this one if they have real plan.

  3. I do not mean to offend anyone. I just question many people who don’t want it in the neighborhood when they cannot identify a better alternative, which then sounds like he NIMBY syndrome at work. My son attended the Tenney-Lapham Nursery. It is a wonderful place and I will work hard to make sure that if the resource center is placed in the Messner’s building, all appropriate fencing and security, including placement of the entrance will take the security of neighborhood & childcare center children seriously. The nursery school is already well and high fenced. I agree that the County official at the meeting needs to answer these questions.

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