After years of effort, Dane County is poised to take its next big step to ease the crushing burdens of homelessness and help people escape it.
The county and partners on Monday will open The Beacon, a bright, open and welcoming day resource center for the homeless that will offer everything from showers to services. The Near East Side facility will be more comprehensive than anything ever offered in the community, and perhaps the state.
“This is a long time coming for Madison,” said Jackson Fonder, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, the center’s operator. “I think people are going to be blown away by what they can get done under one roof.”
The Beacon ultimately expects upwards of 150 people to use the facility daily. Funded by Dane County, Madison, United Way of Dane County and Catholic Charities, the center will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 365 days a year.
The need is great. Currently, there are 791 single adults and 146 families on the county’s housing priority list, which doesn’t include people doubled up with family or friends in housing or paying for motel rooms, who also count as homeless.
The Beacon will offer showers, laundry, restrooms, coffee, lunches, a mail operation, lockers, a computer lab, family space and offices for nonprofits at the two-story, 24,000-square-foot, just-renovated former Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce building, 615 E. Washington Ave.
The county spent $1.75 million to buy the property and is completing a $3 million remake. The funders are covering a $688,000 annual operating budget.
“I’m extremely happy,” said County Executive Joe Parisi. “It’s something that will make a big difference in people’s lives, and a big difference in our community. I think the community wants us to do this.”
‘A place of action’
The renovation has dramatically transformed the building, with its broad windows, high ceilings and colorful finishes giving an airy, sunlit, modern feel.
The first floor offers space for relaxation and basic services — large open spaces with tables and comfy chairs and two flat-panel TVs, a donated high-end coffeemaker, kitchen, six showers, four restrooms, laundry room with six washers and dryers, and about 100 day lockers.
“It’s the basics that all of us take for granted,” Parisi said.
Often, the homeless have no address, so guests can have mail sent to the center, Fonder said. Laundry will be done by volunteers. A modest lunch of some sort — subs, pizza, soups, sodas — will be provided every day. A haircut service will be added, with a small barber pole to be added to the wall.
“For so many of our guests, there’s not much self-esteem left,” Fonder said. “This is a bit more top-end facility that is welcoming, thoughtful and comfortable.”
The center won’t turn away those who’ve been drinking, provided they behave, he said. A first-floor conference room will be used for situations requiring de-escalation and conflict management. “It will all be about teaching, coaching and facilitating,” he said.
“It’s inviting and loving to come in, but when you get here, I’ve got rules,” Fonder said. “This is a place to hang out, but this is more a place of action to get out of homelessness.”
Much of that action will happen on the second floor, where a large open space with tables and more than 20 computers is ringed by offices and space for nonprofits, agencies and service providers.
A large community room can be used for instruction on subjects like securing food stamps or getting a GED. Another room will be dedicated to medical services like flu shots. A segregated area for children and families on the first and second floors has a play area, books, toys, restrooms and connection to a screened outdoor space.
“I hope that it will lead to housing and a better life,” Mayor Paul Soglin said. “I hope that it does not become a facility that discourages people from finding permanent housing.”
The Beacon, United Way president Renee Moe said, “isn’t just a laundry facility, or a kitchen, or a case manager’s office. It’s going to be all those things and more. Our belief is that it will give the homeless population a foundation from which to move out of homelessness and into stable housing.”
To ready for the opening, Catholic Charities assembled a 30-member community advisory team with representatives from the public and private sectors, community groups, nonprofits and the faith community.
The Beacon will have seven full-time and five part-time staff, making at least $15 an hour, Fonder said. It will rely on 20 volunteers daily, and the center hopes to have a pool of 250 volunteers by year’s end, he said.
Lingering concerns include no long-term storage and how people will navigate busy streets around the facility, said Brenda Konkel, an outspoken advocate who said she and others are “cautiously optimistic.”
Fonder said he’s aware long-term storage is an issue, but that the building doesn’t have the space. Parisi added, “If community partners decide it’s important to have long-term storage, folks will have to get together and problem-solve.”
Catholic Charities, Fonder said, is also aware of challenges posed by busy East Washington Avenue and South Blair Street, and intends to work with city officials and others on ways to get people safely to the center.
‘A puzzle’ assembled
The Beacon’s $688,000 annual budget, while significant, must cover a facility open 365 days a year, Fonder said.
The county, city and United Way are contributing a total $330,000 and Catholic Charities $150,000 — altogether $480,000 — for operations this year.
But all funders apparently weren’t aware that Catholic Charities, when named operator, submitted a projected $688,000 operating budget for 2018. After conversations, the county and Catholic Charities raised their commitments to $172,000 apiece. The United Way said it would also contribute that amount if it meets fundraising goals.
Soglin proposed $110,000 — the city’s commitment — in his 2018 budget, but City Council President Marsha Rummel said an amendment to raise that figure seems likely.
The county has searched for a day center site since a temporary facility closed on the 700 block of East Washington Avenue in 2013.
The county explored a building at 1490 Martin St. in the town of Madison, a historic former church that once housed the Bellini Italian restaurant three blocks from Capitol Square, and the former Messner Inc. site, 1326 E. Washington Ave.
But everything changed when the chamber property — close to Downtown, transportation and with other advantages — became available in the summer of 2016.
“This is the single greatest project Catholic Charities has done in its 70-year history,” Fonder said. “But we’re just a piece of the puzzle.”