High demand for new temporary men’s shelter set to open on Madison’s East Side

MADISON, Wis. — A new temporary homeless shelter will open its doors Thursday for as many as 200 men in the Madison area experiencing homelessness.

The new space will take over as the city’s homeless shelter run by Porchlight after the old Fleet Services building on First Street closes Thursday morning to make room for the proposed Madison Public Market.

Community Development Director Jim O’Keefe said while the space is temporary, the city has worked hard to make the new shelter more functional by focusing on what they learned matters most to users.

“We want to do the best that we can in serving a population in our community who are at a point in their lives where they’re very vulnerable,” he said. “We want a space that is humane that treats them well and accommodates them well.”

The temporary men’s shelter will feature better bathrooms with private showers, lockers, and common areas for dining. It will also have space for one-on-one meetings as well as isolation and recovery rooms to take in people who are sick or intoxicated.

O’Keefe said the new shelter also has room for growth to accommodate the rise in people without a place to sleep at night.

He said the total number of unhoused people in Madison, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, grew about 35% between 2020 and 2021. This year, that number dropped to about 18% but he said that still leaves many in need of service.

Porchlight has run the city’s men’s shelter program for decades. The group’s executive director, Karla Thennes, said in the summer, they typically help about 60 people a night, but in 2022 that number has never fallen below 100.

She also said a couple of weeks ago, the shelter reached a peak that she hasn’t seen in over 30 years: housing 207 people in one night.

“Look at the price of the goods and gas and the things that people are spending their money on,” she said. “I mean we’re talking very low-income people and all those increases for cost in housing—who can afford housing in Madison?”

Thennes expects those numbers to remain high as the weather gets cold, particularly because the city’s pandemic programs which previously housed vulnerable people in hotels are ending. The first already closed on Sept. 30 and the last is set to end in February.

Part of the uptick can also be attributed to the city’s efforts to reduce barriers to shelter use, according to O’Keefe. He said unlike in years prior, there is no longer a 90-day limit on shelter stays and people under the influence will not be turned away so long as they follow the rules and are not disruptive.

“I mean we’re not happy about the fact that so many people need this service but we’re pleased that they’re willing to avail themselves if they do need [shelter],” O’keefe said.

City engineering crews and their subcontractors have worked to convert the former thrift store on Zeier Road since February. They spent about $1.1 million on renovations and the city purchased the building itself for about $2 million.

Engineering Division facilities service coordinator Stephen King said they did run into some challenges on the build with supply chain issues, delays and equipment price hikes, but they ultimately made their deadline.

“It helps to have that perspective of, we’ve had some challenges on this project, but nothing compared to what folks are dealing with,” King said. “It feels almost petty sometimes to grumble about shipping delays and whatnot.”

The Zeier Road location will house the city’s third temporary men’s homeless shelter in as many years. The city expects to open a permanent shelter sometime in mid-2025 on Bartillon Drive.