Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the City of Madison has worked hard to prevent evictions and provide expanded services for people experiencing homelessness to keep them safe from COVID-19 and from Wisconsin’s winter weather.

We constructed a spacious temporary men’s shelter, first at Warner Park, later at our First Street garage location as we actively pursued a location for a permanent men’s shelter. We converted a closed nursing home for use as a shelter facility for families, freeing up space for single women at the Salvation Army. We supported a few temporary permitted encampments with porta potties, handwashing stations and visits by outreach staff. We made sure vaccine was available in shelters and at encampments. We utilized $8 million in emergency federal funds to support renters and prevent evictions, and continue to expand that program.

As spring approached earlier this year, the City worked to close the encampment at Reindahl Park, however, recognizing that some would not use City shelter facilities, the Common Council opted to direct staff to continue to allow camping until alternative options were developed.

Aided by new federal funds, City staff got to work developing alternatives. The first task was to create a campground with sleeping cabins to provide a safer, more secure shelter option for people who were unable to, use congregant shelter settings.

City Engineering Department took hold of this project and in a short time constructed an urban campground to accommodate 30 individuals. This site contains 30 climate-controlled living units and will be actively managed through a partnership between Mach One and Kabba Recovery Services, who will provide supportive services to the campground’s users and help connect them to more permanent housing. It complies with all relevant City zoning and State licensure requirements.

Alders unanimously took action to support the funds to create this alternative. City outreach workers have already begun to help people move and will continue to work in the park daily to support campers as they settle in at new locations.

“It is heartwarming to see people moving into Dairy Drive, a safe environment, where they can be out of the elements, lock their doors, and get help from dedicated staff to help them gain control of their personal situations and help them navigate towards housing stability,” said Alder Yannette Figueroa Cole, “With the new options created by the City, it’s time to bring a close to the encampment at Reindahl Park and put our collaborative efforts with the County and other agencies in helping other unsheltered individuals across the City.”

“The City has done what the Common Council asked and created alternatives for campers who cannot or will not live in congregant shelter. I appreciate all the City staff who helped make the campground and other options a reality,” said Alder Jael Currie. “I continue to be impressed and grateful for our outreach workers who have been supporting unsheltered populations long before temporary permissible encampments were allowed. The skill, passion and experience they possess has been essential in successfully assisting folks move into more safe, sanitary and humane environments.”

City staff had a great deal of difficulty finding a safe and appropriate second site, so as winter loomed, they turned their attention to other strategies and worked with Dane County to secure additional hotel rooms at a nearby location. Under a contract with Dane County, the facility is currently managed by Focus Counseling, a local agency that provides on-site support staff to persons being sheltered at the hotel. Alders unanimously took action to support the funds for a contract with Focus Counseling to extend services to additional unsheltered individuals and 35 rooms, the only rooms remaining at this supported location, were secured.

Last, but certainly not least, the City continues to support operations of a very spacious and safe overnight men’s shelter at the First Street shelter operated by Porchlight. As the winter weather sets in, we have seen a steady rise in the numbers of those using this option, but ample room remains for those who need a safe place at night. 

Having created three safe and legal places for persons experiencing homelessness, the City has met the standard recommended by the Council this spring. Accordingly, the use of Reindahl Park as an encampment must come to an end. In the next few weeks, outreach workers will be helping people move and get settled in in other locations. It is imperative that a cleanup be completed before the park is covered in snow and ice.

“I am glad the City and the County are making renewed investments in helping the unsheltered. I am glad we have created these three options and look forward to finding a location for a permanent men’s shelter and exploring other options in the months ahead,” said Alder Patrick Heck.

Our work is not done. We know Madison faces a severe housing shortage and the rental market it much too tight. We know the City needs more housing and more types of housing. The “Housing Forward” agenda we are implementing contains multiple strategies the City can use to drive the creation of new housing options forward. We are also actively seeking a location for a permanent men’s shelter and possible locations for tiny houses. We are excited that the county budget envisions investment in tiny houses, an RV campground, and a hotel for affordable housing. Stay tuned for more developments on these critical issues.

We have taken a "Team City" approach to this difficult issue and multiple departments have been engaged on a weekly basis, including our Community Development Division, parks, public health, engineering, building inspection, planning, finance, attorney’s office, police and fire. I want to thank everyone for their efforts.

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