A daytime warming shelter opened Monday to serve the needs of Dane County's homeless, although local leaders agreed more needed to be done.
"Shelters are basically a short-term safety net," said Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight, Inc., the agency that will run the facility. "Shelters should try to work hard to make sure no one freezes to death, but the real solution is not the shelters -- it never has been."
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin estimated that 300 families, or about 400 people, were homeless in the city. Some have mental health or substance abuse problems, while others simply lost their jobs or apartments, he said.
Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, has been working with the former Occupy Madison group, which county officials have moved to Token Creek Park near Windsor. In recent weeks, about 25 people have camped with the group, which has relocated four times since last winter.
"Why can't we fix the problem?" Konkel asked. "There's a lot of smart people in our community, a lot of people who care, and a lot of people who are opening up their wallets."
The warming shelter opening Monday will be in the former Lussier Teen Center, 827 East Washington Avenue.
It will stay open during the daytime hours until March 31, despite requests from neighbors that the county not locate the shelter there.
Last year, a similar day shelter across the street averaged about 90 people a day, despite strong objections from neighborhood residents who were concerned with an uptick in police calls.
Porchlight workers said they'll do a better job communicating with their neighbors this year.
"On our end, we've made a pledge to, as much as possible, be communicative with the neighborhoods, communicative with neighbors on this block and doing sort of intermittent patrols to do as much as possible to really nip things in the bud and really take seriously neighbors' concerns and figure out how we can just all be a community together," said Sarah Gillmore, the daytime shelter manager.
Porchlight said it expects about 90 people to use the shelter every day. It's looking for supply donations and volunteers.
But long-term solutions include subsidized housing, Soglin said. He said he and a group of city alderpersons are putting together a proposal to add 40 to 50 beds over the next couple years.
But many of the homeless aren't from Madison, Soglin has said.
"We need help," he said. "Madison is a defined geographic area and it alone cannot provide the cost of subsidized housing."
Porchlight, which houses low-income people near the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, will soon open a 50-bed facility on the east side for people at low rates. Even though it hasn't opened, it's already full, Schooler said.
Housing is the first priority before families can get their lives back on track, said Deedra Atkinson, senior vice president of community impact at the United Way of Dane County.
"One-third of those families come from domestic violence, and we know about 50 percent of them have medical problems that are substantial," Atkinson said. "All of them have lost jobs and don't have income."