Karla Thennes, executive director of Porchlight, and John Cannarella, owner of A-I Furniture, announce an effort to raise money to save the Safe Haven center for homeless with mental health issues. 

When Sharon Jackson came to the Safe Haven center, she was struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol, and she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Safe Haven is the city’s only transitional housing center for homeless individuals suffering from severe mental illness, and it turned Jackson’s life around.

“I’m not on drugs, I’m not on alcohol. I’m going to school,” she said. “It helped change my life.”

But on Tuesday, the center announced it would have to close at the end of the year due to lack of funding.

“For them to shut it would just be a disgrace, because where are we going to go? In the dead of winter, it’s going to be cold,” she said. “It’s just crazy. I think we should have more places for people with mental illness, instead of taking away places that we need so desperately.”

But a local business owner is starting a fundraising campaign to prevent that from happening. John Cannarella, owner of A-1 Furniture, announced at a Thursday press conference that the businesses is donating $10,000.

The Safe Haven transitional center is a service of Porchlight, an organization that provides services and housing for Dane County homeless. The Safe Haven program has been around since 1995, and a few years ago was able to build a new center at 4006 Nakoosa Tr.

The program provides 14 beds and about 40 people drop in every day to do laundry, eat a free meal, shower or take a nap, said Porchlight executive director Karla Thennes. Individuals usually stay for three to five months, long enough to connect to resources like food stamps, housing and jobs. Staff was at the center 24-hours a day to provide case management and support.

The vast majority of funding for the program has historically come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the past 22 years, Thennes said. HUD provided about $350,000 and another $50,000 came from local donations to Porchlight.

The community receives just over $3 million of HUD funding every year, said Tori Kopp Mueller, the continuum of care coordinator for the county’s Homeless Services Consortium.

HUD also requires a coordinated entry system, a system that identifies, assesses and connects individuals experiencing homeless to housing. The system creates priority lists based on vulnerability.

Up until now, that system has been funded by the city, but the program is not as strong as HUD requires, Kopp Mueller said, and the program needed more funding to hire additional staff.

Kopp Mueller said she suggested that the Homeless Services Consortium board of directors may want to consider using part of the $3 million to fund coordinated entry, even though that would be a difficult choice as it would necessitate funding cuts for an existing program.

The board agreed to fund coordinated entry, but didn’t want to discuss which program to cut until members saw data about how the programs were performing, Mueller said.

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“They never discussed anything about Safe Haven,” she said.

HUD funding and local standards prioritize permanent supportive housing, said Thennes, and Safe Haven doesn’t fall in that category. So when the board voted to guarantee $287,000 for coordinated entry, Porchlight decided not to apply as “the majority of our funds were already allocated for another program.”

Because Safe Haven serves the severely mentally ill, those people likely won’t easily transition to other shelters or housing. “They just have very severe mental health issues, alcohol and drug issues,” she said Tuesday. “I worry that putting them in a program that’s just serving homeless people in general is not going to be a good fit for them.”

According to a press release, A-1's Cannarella and his son, Paul, “got frustrated” when they heard the news of Safe Haven's closing.

The release states that Cannarella called Thennes and said, “We just can’t let this happen, we can’t let you close. People need you, you do a great job. We support all the arts, spend millions of dollars and we can’t take care of needy people?”

At the press conference, he committed his company to donate $10,000 and challenged other businesses to do the same and “step up to the plate.” Donations can be made on the Porchlight website.

“Here we are in Madison, Wisconsin. We’re an affluent community,” Cannarella said. “We don’t have to depend on the government to take care of us, to give us everything that we need.”

Thennes said that because the annual cost of $400,000 is such a large amount of money, she at least wants to raise enough to get the shelter through the winter. That would give the center time to figure out a long-term solution, meeting with city, county, United Way and other foundations to look at options, she said.