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The Beacon

The Beacon, Madison's new homeless day resource center, opens its doors Monday. The center is located in the former Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce Building at 615 E. Washington Ave. 

When Madison's new resource center for the homeless opens Monday on the near east side, Dane County will be able to offer one location where individuals can seek temporary refuge from winter weather and connect with services.

Dane County, the city of Madison and partners celebrated The Beacon’s long-awaited opening at a ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday. The center is bright and colorful and features private showers, bathrooms, laundry service, lockers, mail room services and a computer lab.

Jackson Fonder, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, the center’s operator, promised the center will deliver on its mission to lift community members out of homelessness.

“This building is a game changer for Madison. Make no mistake about it,” Fonder said. “Our intent is to reduce homelessness. Period.”

The Beacon will be open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and expects to serve 150 people a day, said Jane McGowan, director of development and communications for Catholic Charities.

The county bought the former Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce building at 615 E. Washington Ave. for $1.75 million and is funding the building’s remodel. The county, city and United Way are supporting the center’s $688,000 yearly operating budget.

“This facility reflects the values of our community,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said Thursday. “We care about our neighbors and not just our neighbors who are powerful, our neighbors who are doing well, but most importantly our neighbors who have fallen on hard times.”

City Council Vice President Samba Baldeh highlighted the collaborative nature of the project and said it gives him hope for solving future challenges.

“The city and county must continue to partner and provide basic services to our most vulnerable populations,” Baldeh said.

One stop for services

Guests of the center will be greeted by someone staffing the front welcome desk, through the East Main Street entrance. The first floor offers two sitting areas, laundry facilities, showers, bathrooms and a sink for haircuts.

The computer lab is on the second floor, in addition to offices, where future partner agencies that can assist individuals with employment and housing will be located. Private areas are also available for families and mothers with children.

The second floor also features a large community room that can also be used for GED classes, along with a room for preventative medical services.

Tami Fleming, the center’s volunteer coordinator, is familiar with the population the day center aims to serve. She founded the Friends of the State Street Family, a volunteer homeless outreach organization, and continues to serve as its executive director.

“The things that homeless people have to endure are wrong,” Fleming said. “I don't think anyone should ever have to live like that.”

She said she believes the center’s comprehensive services will reduce the amount of time a person is homeless and make a difference in the community where there are hundreds of homeless individuals on the county’s priority housing list.

There are also approximately 324 chronically homeless individuals in the area, which includes people staying in a shelter, living without shelter or in transitional housing, according to the Homeless Services Consortium.

Volunteers are a crucial part of the center, which needs about 200. Fleming has about 170 committed people so far and is in charge of recruiting and training.

“Every new face of a volunteer who has chosen to come and help out is an affirmation to [a homeless] person that they matter,” Fleming said.

For the past year, Catholic Charities has been making connections with people who could benefit from the day center by partnering with Bethel Lutheran Church’s homeless ministry. Bev Thom, who leads Bethel’s homeless ministry board, said the church will return to providing its day shelter twice a week.

“We are very supportive of the center and pleased that they will have a full service center for people, so that people, first of all, will have daytime shelter 365 days of the year,” Thom said. “They will actually have access to more social services there, and so we’re just looking forward to our homeless to be cared for on a daily basis.”

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Kisha Jordan, a program assistant at the Road Home, was touring the new center before the ribbon cutting ceremony. She said the center would benefit families who utilize the Road Home’s family shelter located in the Salvation Army building across East Washington Avenue from The Beacon.

“With The Beacon opening, it would allow families ... to get from across the street to over here to utilize their day center instead of having to catch a bus with strollers and bags to come over to our location,” Jordan said.

The Road Home, an organization committed to ending family homelessness, is located at 128 E. Olin Ave.

Years in the making

For some who have been working on opening a day resource center for years, the opening of The Beacon feels unreal.

The first piece of legislation that County Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, District 2, sponsored as an elected official in the spring of 2012 was to create a homeless issues committee and a taskforce to identify gaps in the county’s homeless services system. That taskforce led to a report recommending a homeless day resource center.

“There have been so many setbacks, delays and changes that it’s a little hard to believe,” Wegleitner said.

The county previously looked at property on Martin Street and at the former Messner building on East Washington Avenue for a day resource center, but both plans faced challenges and opposition.

Ald. Marsha Rummel, District 6, served for several years on the City-County Homeless Issues Committee and is familiar with the frustrations of previous day center proposals falling short. She believes The Beacon’s location, near downtown services and bus lines, will be beneficial.

“I am proud The Beacon landed in District 6 and relieved that we are about to open the doors after so many years of delay,” Rummel said. “I am committed to a housing first model, but we also need a one-stop location for homeless individuals and families seeking services and comfort.”

Members of the public can tour the new center Friday from 2 to 6 p.m.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.