By Sandy Cullen
Wisconsin State Journal
In the nearly four months it’s been open, the temporary homeless day shelter on East Washington Avenue has served as a de facto community center where more than 100 people a day have found warmth and companionship, something to eat and help in finding a job or a place to live.
When the shelter closes March 31, it will be a step backward for those who will have to find someplace else to spend their days, lug their belongings with them as they try to find work, and wait for a permanent Dane County day shelter expected to open in November, said Sarah Gillmore, who runs the current facility.
But Gillmore called the shelter an experiment that succeeded, particularly in giving the people who use it a voice in how it is run — something that hasn’t happened before.
More than 60 homeless people have volunteered at the center in roles such as cooking, cleaning, patrolling the area around the center and picking up trash.
County Human Service Director Lynn Green agrees the shelter has been a “phenomenal success” that has helped many homeless people find places to live, access mental health or substance abuse treatment and get IDs so they can apply for jobs and housing.
Green credits the success to the way Gillmore and Z! Haukeness, assistant director, have been able to work with the people who have come to the shelter, and the county “will look favorably” on plans to use a similar model when it asks for proposals to operate the permanent shelter at a site yet to be determined.
But, Green said, the county made a commitment to the neighboring Rainbow Project — which serves abused children and their families next door to the day shelter at 827 E. Washington Ave. and opposed its location — that it would only be open through March.
“It’s very sad,” Gillmore said of the center’s closing.
Many homeless people have mental health and substance abuse problems, and it takes time to build relationships and trust, and to find out how you can help them take the next steps toward improving their circumstances, she said.
As days wind down, more people are trying to take advantage of the available assistance before the opportunity is lost.
Two other deadlines
The center’s closing will be the last in a series of events affecting people who are homeless that some have dubbed “March madness.”
Sunday is the deadline for members of the group Occupy Madison to leave Token Creek Park in the town of Burke, where they have been camping under a special county permit since November, when county authorities packed up and moved their belongings from an illegal camp they set up at Lake View Hill Park on Madison’s North Side. Before that they were forced to leave a vacant lot in the 800 block of East Washington Avenue.
Brenda Konkel, who has been working with the group to establish a permanent housing location, said 15 to 20 campers plan to move on Saturday to a lot on Portage Road near the Dane County Regional Airport owned by attorney Koua Vang until county campgrounds reopen on April 16.
Matt Tucker, city zoning code administrator, said Vang and individual campers could be subject to daily fines or prosecution from the City Attorney’s Office because camping is not permitted on the property. A municipal citation would carry fines of $177 for the first day, $303 for the second day and $366 for subsequent days. Prosecution in municipal court could bring fines of $1 to $1,000 a day, Tucker said.
Also this month, more than 150 men have exceeded their 60-day limit for overnight shelter provided by Porchlight Inc. and won’t be allowed to return until Nov. 1 unless temperatures dip below 20 degrees or other weather conditions are extreme.
Green said the limits set by the county for an overnight shelter for men and women (also 60 days) and temporary family housing (90 days, with a 180-day lifetime limit) — designed to strike a balance between meeting immediate needs and encouraging people to find permanent housing — will likely be the subject of further discussion.
‘This is going to be hard’
Meanwhile, those like Al Muhaymin and his wife, Jennifer Kohl, who have been homeless for about two years and came to Madison in December, are bracing for days and nights back on the street. Kohl will reach her limit for overnight shelter provided by the Salvation Army on Sunday.
“Me and her are going to be camping out every day,” Muhaymin said.
Muhaymin, who volunteers to get men’s overnight shelters ready each night, has been spending his days volunteering in the day shelter’s computer lab, where he helps others with resumes and applications for state FoodShare assistance, while looking for work himself. But as a felon with a history of violent crimes, he admits his job outlook is “quite bleak,” relegating him to day labor that’s “not going to put a roof over my head.”
“I can get a lot done here,” he said of the day shelter. “When this is closed up on the 31st, this is going to be hard, literally.”
And while he spends his days out looking for work, Muhaymin said, “My wife is going to be out there on the street. It makes me want to give up.”