City News

Some downtown residents blame homeless shelters for crime in Madison

City officials are trying to tackle crime on the 100 block of State Street, which has recently seen a spike in incidents.

Image By: Amileah Sutliff

Some Madison community members are fed up with homeless shelters.

Nearly a dozen residents and business owners told city officials they felt unsafe in the city at a listening session Thursday, many of them pointing fingers at local homeless shelters that allow individuals to stay long-term. The shelters not only attract crime, they say, but also make homelessness worse in the area.

Lupe Montes, who has lived downtown for about a decade, said she believes some local efforts to help the homeless community have brought drug dealers to her neighborhood. Montes’ house sits near housing associated with Porchlight, an organization that provides homeless individuals with shelter, food, employment services and counseling.

“I’m all about helping people in need, but when there’s drug dealers and people coming [in the middle of the night] … that’s not fair,” she said. “I need to go to work the next day. I need to pay the bills.”

Sarah Woolery, another downtown resident, said overnight homeless shelters can be “part of the problem” because they encourage long-term stays, which could deter individuals from seeking housing.

“Shelters are really only meant to be like a temporary, stopgap measure,” Woolery said, noting many other cities follow a “Housing First” model — a national initiative that aims to secure homeless individuals with housing before other aid, such as alcohol treatment programs.

The city has warmed up to a Housing First approach to tackling homelessness in recent years. In 2014, Mayor Paul Soglin approved a plan to build a thousand housing units, which would be “affordable” and provide support services, for homeless individuals within five years.

Members of the Common Council now have a “strong commitment” to Housing First and to affordable housing, according to Ald. Paul Skidmore, District 9.

“I have housing first projects in my district, which not all of my constituents are thrilled about, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” Skidmore said.

Last month, the city opened a day resources center downtown for homeless individuals. The Beacon, located on East Washington Avenue, aims to connect individuals to housing, rather than provide it directly.

Ald. Zach Wood, District 8, said he doesn’t think homeless day shelters discourage individuals from pursuing permanent housing.

“When people need resources, I think it makes sense to provide that for them,” Wood said. 

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