By Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner — When and where will a day center for homeless people ever open? Over the last three and a half years, the County has pursued many different sites, some better than others, but ultimately resulting in continued delays, frustrated plans, wasted time and resources, and discouraged advocates. The center was planned for Wright Street, then 827 E. Washington Ave., Lien Road, Martin Street, Bellini’s, 1326 E. Washington (Messner’s), and now 615 E. Washington Ave., at the former Chamber of Commerce building.
Is this latest building finally the development site that will make this long-awaited, much-needed project a reality?
By all accounts, this is the most promising site to date. It is very close to overnight shelters (across the street from The Salvation Army, which serves single women and families) and just a few blocks from Capitol Square. It is a solid structure and handicapped accessible. There is ample parking space and two separate entries. Between the two floors, there is almost 13,000 square feet, which is significantly larger than the plans for the Messner building. (The existing Messner building was 19,000 square feet, but the County plans called for taking down the newer additions, cutting the space in half.) Lastly, it appears the day center, in some form, could open this coming winter.
Of course, the process by which we came about this site has been extremely problematic. The County Board, the City–County Homeless Issues Committee, the neighborhood, and homeless community and advocates were informed of the accepted offer to purchase the Chamber building by the press release. I found out the night before the press release.
I was encouraged by the news because of the location and the fact that the County Executive was indicating that this site would allow us to open up a day center facility this winter. We still need a conditional use permit (CUP), however, so getting an operator on board as soon as possible to assist with the CUP application is important. Resolution 62, which I authored and am co-sponsoring with all the PD supervisors, many other supervisors, and county board leadership, calls for full funding of the operations of the day resource center, and inclusion of overnight personal storage in the day resource center program plans.
In what has become a pattern with this project, I was forced to push critical issues in the form of a resolution because the county administration has excluded me from planning meetings and refused to incorporate suggestions from advocates and stakeholders on both process and substance of the comprehensive day resource center plans. And once again a secretive, exclusive planning process facilitated by the County and the United Way failed to achieve its goals—to obtain funding commitments from the funding partners and reach consensus on the components of the services and amenities to be offered at the comprehensive day resource center.
Secretive process leaves unanswered questions
Because the “concept paper” that was the product of the secret, exclusive meetings of the “potential funders” left so many unanswered questions and a significant operations funding gap, city and county legislative leaders pursued resolutions to designate funding sources and commit full operations funding, and to recommend inclusion of overnight personal storage in the day center plans. Funding levels and overnight personal storage appeared to be the two primary unresolved issues that should be worked out before the RFP was released. Most of the other concerns, including site plans and management details, could be worked out with the selected operator during the CUP application preparation and management plan development process.
Before the press conference announcing the new building, I asked County Executive Parisi and his staff about their administration’s position on the RFP for the operator, including whether they planned to incorporate the recommendations in Res. 62 in the RFP. As with almost all of my questions directed to Parisi’s office, it went unanswered. The administration proceeded to issue the RFP on June 24 without including any funding commitment and without requiring overnight personal storage. Responses to the RFP are due on Aug. 12.
Will this new location result in more RFP respondents despite the County Executive’s refusal to commit funding, communicate with stakeholders, and include the homeless community and advocates in the planning process? Dane County Human Services Director Lynn Green thinks so.
It hasn’t taken long for the administration to already back off of one of its stated reasons for purchasing the new building. Remember how this site would allow us to open this winter? Well, it turns out that the County may not do that after all because another secret group is planning to open Bethel again this winter with private funding.
Huh? Yes, you read that right. Bethel Lutheran, whose parish council refused county money and closed their Monday–Friday day center operation earlier this year, now wants to open up again with a different funding source and new staff. Something smells. While providing day center services at Bethel instead of the Chamber building allows renovations to begin earlier, it also means that the County has no control over the operations of the day center and persons could be unfairly denied services because ordinance requirements protecting people from unfair denials is not applicable.
Moreover, at least 6,000 square feet would be available for a day center on the first floor of the Chamber building this winter as opposed to the much smaller space at Bethel.
Where does all this leave us?
First, we need to get quality applicants to apply to operate the comprehensive day resource center. These would be organizations committed to serving homeless individuals and families, working with the neighborhood and funders in the planning process, providing trauma-informed care, utilizing harm reduction approaches and community restorative justice models for conflict resolution. We want organizations that will respect the strengths and contributions the day center guests bring to our community and empower and involve them in the comprehensive day resource center operations. And, yes, organizations that bring additional resources, whether that be additional funding sources or community and volunteer partnerships, will score well in the RFP review.
Second, we need a respectful and inclusive planning process. Former alder and dedicated homeless advocate Brenda Konkel suggested a design meeting for stakeholders in the new building with a focus group of currently and former homeless individuals. I asked Lynn Green to discuss this with Dawn O’Kroley, the Dorscher architect working on the design plans. Advocates need to elevate and support the voices of those directly impacted by homelessness and make sure the project plans include their priorities and meets their needs.
Third, we need 2017 budget advocacy to ensure that all existing resources dedicated to homeless day services are available for full funding of annual operations of the comprehensive day resource center. The county and city resolutions state this intention, so we need to make sure they pass and their recommendations become a part of the 2017 adopted County and City Budgets.
Lastly, we need to make sure that the CUP gets adopted so the comprehensive day resource center finally becomes a reality. We should be able to achieve this goal if we’re successful with the first three objectives -- obtaining a quality operator, engaging in a respectful and inclusive planning process, and ensuring sufficient funding to support quality services.
Thanks to Alders Rummel and McKinney for their leadership with the City day center resolution and all the other PD electeds and members for your strong commitment to ending homelessness.