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Madison’s shelter shell game drags on

Procedural hemming and hawing once again derails an effort to aid Madison’s homeless people.

It could have been such an easy vote. At the Madison Common Council’s May 4 meeting, Alders had the chance to move forward with building a shelter for homeless men on a property near East Towne Mall. The measure had majority support and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway championed it, but thanks to a procedural technicality, it needed 15 votes to pass. It failed, with 14 yes votes and 5 no votes. One of the Council’s 20 members, District 7 Alder Nasra Wehelie, was absent and could revive the measure if she chooses.

The result, barring a last-ditch attempt to save the plan, is that it’ll be at least another year until the city can move forward on a permanent homeless shelter, and possibly more, delaying a process that has already dragged on for ages. Year after year, city officials punt on the shelter. As if we aren’t living through a pandemic. As if people aren’t being pushed from place to place to keep them out of sight. As if it can wait, and that’s OK. Meanwhile, Madison doesn’t have enough infrastructure to help homeless people, an affordable housing crisis is putting more residents in a precarious position, and the city is once again preparing to evict an encampment of people who have nowhere else to go.

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A sponsor display for The Sessions at McPike Park.

Just about everyone seemed to agree that the East Towne spot, at 2002 Zeier Road, was flawed at best—it’s not the easiest place to reach by public transit, and it’s not near other resources for homeless people, but it’s what the city can do for now. Not everyone seems to agree that an imperfect shelter site is better than letting the problem fester even longer. Five Alders blocked it: Sheri Carter, Gary Halverson, Charles Myadze, Syed Abbas, and Barbara Harrington-McKinney all voted no, keeping the proposal one vote shy of what it needed to pass.

Whatever the site’s flaws, service providers and unhoused people showed up to the Common Council meeting in support of purchasing that location. If the five no votes were really motivated by concerns for homeless people, then these Alders are applying that concern inconsistently at best. It’s a bit hypocritical for these Alders to vote against building a shelter by East Towne, reasoning that it’s too far from services, after forcing people to move out of McPike Park, sending many out to Reindahl Park, near where the shelter would be. Just days after voting down the proposal for a homeless shelter, the City is now forcing people out of Reindahl Park as well.

The vote also continues a long tradition of Alders hiding behind procedural concerns and technicalities to justify their votes, rather than tackling the substance and immediate impact of policy head-on. Abbas, as Council President, first tried to refer the item to August to give time to fully compare the Zeier Road site with a potential alternative site on Pennsylvania Avenue. But it’s not an either/or situation: The city could move ahead with the East Towne site in the short term and still develop another shelter in Pennsylvania (or more likely shift the shelter from one spot to the other), or at other locations that are more central.

Delaying on the Zeier Road site, even for well-intentioned reasons, still has real consequences for homeless people in Madison. If the city did take an extra few months to study alternatives, it could easily lose the property to another buyer. The Pennsylvania Avenue site would also cost about $10 million more and wouldn’t open until two years later. And there is no guarantee that a purchase will pan out once the Pennsylvania Avenue site is up for sale. Any future site will have to overcome the same hurdles that have faced recent proposals. Last fall, shortly after City and County officials announced selection of a different East Side site, a neighboring business purchased it before the sale could go through.

More recently, the city has set up a temporary shelter at the Fleet Building on First Street, where it later plans to establish the Madison Public Market. However, a shooting at that shelter in March has given opponents of any shelter an excuse to once again make the conversation about security rather than about housing. In this conversation, the conditions that create homelessness in the first place aren’t the main concern, and homeless people are a threat to be contained, policed, and shoved out of sight, lest they impact businesses or derail luxury developments. People are actually convinced that it’s more dangerous to house homeless people than it is to let more people remain homeless for longer.

Even Isthmus columnist and former mayor Dave Cieslewicz sees the foolishness in this mentality, writing in April that the incident at First Street “is the only shooting and one of the very few violent incidents at the shelter whether at the current site or previous ones downtown”—in other words, it’s not a good reason to withhold help from people who need it.

In that same column, Cieslewicz proposed making the First Street site a permanent shelter and finding another site for the Public Market. After all, the city already owns the Fleet Building and is already sheltering homeless people there. This could speed along the process of opening a shelter but could also raise equity concerns of its own. If keeping the shelter in the Fleet Building makes way for luxury developments at East Towne, it may be at the expense of local start-up businesses expected to participate in the future Madison Public Market, many of them minority-owned. That said, unhoused folks need to be at the center of this decision, and even the needs of very worthy locally owned small businesses shouldn’t take precedence.

This characterization of unhoused people as dangerous—along with opposition from neighboring homeowners and business owners claiming that the presence of unhoused people could be detrimental to property values and businesses—is also racist. Dane County’s extreme racial disparities extend to homelessness. The Daily Cardinal reported in March that Black people made up 46 percent of Dane County’s homeless population from October 2019 to September 2020 despite representing only 14 percent of the overall population. That disparity is the result of generations of racist policies, said Michael Basford, director of the Interagency Council on homelessness, in that same article.

Halverson and Myadze are new to the Council. Halverson followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Samba Baldeh, who pledged to “kill” the proposal to build a shelter at the end of March. Halverson, who ran unopposed, said from the beginning he was against a shelter in his district. Myadze, Carter, and Abbas were all the beneficiaries of developer money that poured into last month’s council races, with the explicit aim of propping up pro-business and pro-police candidates.

This agonizingly near miss comes as Madison grapples with incredibly complex questions about how to manage development, and as more and more residents struggle to keep up with rising rents. In a time of economic uncertainty, so many ordinary people are one bad break away from becoming homeless themselves, and so many homeless people will have to fight that much harder to regain some stability. None of them can afford the political waffling of a few Alders.

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