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Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Porchlight provides temporary shelter to single men at its Drop-In Shelter on N Brook St.

From streets to shelters: Navigating Madison’s web of housing resources

Standing in the stinging cold, Jason O’Donnell organized his belongings in front of Triangle Square Market on State Street, his nose a shade of red similar to his hat. A heavy winter coat hung on his bent shoulders, and a kind smile rested on his cheeks. 

In the first cold snap of winter, Madison’s homeless search for warmth in storefronts, tents and shelters. But this isn’t Jason’s first time sitting through a frost. Having spent more than half of his life homeless, he learned to navigate the potholes of Madison’s homelessness services throughout every season. 

Jason dropped out of Madison West High School during his freshman year and found himself on the streets of downtown Madison selling marijuana to stay afloat. His mom kicked him out when he turned 18, pushing him to find his way as an adult without support. Over the following decades, Jason fell in and out of homelessness, wading through Madison’s decentralized homeless services until he landed on a corner of State Street with his dog, Alabama. That’s where he lives now at the age of 54. 

People experience chronic homelessness all over Madison. The city and numerous non-profit organizations such as Porchlight, the Beacon and the Salvation Army provide shelters, mental health resources and addiction resources, with a new shelter on the way.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway heavily invested local and federal funds in affordable housing and the new men's homeless shelter on Bartillon Drive in her 2024 executive capital budget. This homeless shelter will be the first permanent men’s shelter in Madison and will provide mental and physical health services as well as addiction recovery resources. 

This is an approach called supportive housing, where people are given access to mental health and addiction resources in their affordable housing and shelters. In an episode of “The Political Scene” by the New Yorker, Jennifer Egan claimed it is a key component to successful transitional services, helping people permanently move off the streets.

According to a city of Madison community development specialist Sarah Lim, the new men's homeless shelter is the latest of many supportive housing projects organized by the city. Overall, there are 118 supportive housing units for families and 470 for singles in Madison, Lim said. The units are scattered across the city in both regular and affordable housing projects. 

However, there has been significant backlash to this type of integrated organization. According to Jason, residents in these buildings have repeatedly called the police, while some residents of the supportive housing program struggle with the lack of guidance and security. 

“There's a lot of drug activity, extortions, robberies,” Jason said. “People knock on your door all hours of the night… you got people selling crack, crystal meth.” 

Jason explained that there needs to be a stricter environment for people experiencing homelessness to break out of addiction and access mental health care. He said he has been offered housing options but chooses to stay on the streets because of his own experiences and stories from others regarding what the city offers. 

He primarily referenced Dairy Drive, where the city set up emergency temporary housing during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was very little supervision at night, and a resident was stabbed, leaving the homeless community vulnerable and untrusting of help from the city.

“You know, Dairy Drive is what? Thirty dog houses in a muddy field? It’s called a concentration camp,” Jason said. “What did I do to deserve that?” 

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Conditions differ at Porchlight’s temporary men’s homeless shelter on Zeier Road. Open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., residents can take shuttles from day shelters like the Beacon to the East Side night shelter. According to Porchlight manager Fares Fares, an average of 275 men come to the shelter each night. 

While staff confiscate any drugs, alcohol or weapons, Zeier Road is a wet shelter, meaning men don’t have to be sober to find a bed there at night. Fares said this is a strategy of compassion, understanding that most people experiencing homelessness struggle with substance abuse. 

Jason argued stricter drug and alcohol policies would be more effective. He said if he could hypothetically organize the city, he would create one large shelter for everyone outside of downtown and bus people there every day. There would be a zero-tolerance policy for any drugs or alcohol, and people would be court-ordered to take any prescribed mental health medications. 

“There's no safe environment for somebody in recovery,” Jason said. 

The city of Madison and Porchlight are working to make the new men’s shelter a safe place for people to efficiently transition out of chronic homelessness into permanent housing with access to education and employment, according to Fares. 

“Knowledge is so powerful,” Fares said. 

Fares hopes the University of Wisconsin-Madison will get involved, sending guest lecturers and students to work at the shelter, calling it “the school of life.”  

Between now and when the new shelter is operating, Fares extended an invitation to the Zeier Road shelter, urging students and anyone in the Madison community to volunteer. Additionally, he said everyday actions can have an impact — acts of kindness, respect and dignity toward those experiencing homelessness. 

“We need to get rid of this stigma and understand that any of us can be in that position,” Fares said. “Not tolerate each other, but accept each other, because we are all human beings.”

Editor's Note: This story was last updated at 11:06 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2024 to correct that the victim of the stabbing survived. 

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