Two city alders accuse Madison mayor of ‘cutting them out’ of men’s homeless shelter process

MADISON, Wis. — Two Madison alders, including council president Syed Abbas, accused the mayor of cutting them out of the process and press conference for finalizing the location for a men’s permanent homeless shelter, announced earlier Wednesday morning.

The new location announcement on Wednesday marks the third location the city has announced for the shelter in the past year, with the first one falling through as a private sale, and city council refusing to put its stamp of approval on the second location at Zeier Road.

“The mayor purposefully cut me and Alder Halverson out of this process; the press conference, we both were not invited,” Abbas told News 3 late Wednesday afternoon, who represents the district where the property is located. “By not inviting us, she purposefully cut the community voices out.”

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Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway pushed back in an interview with News 3 Now, pointing out that Abbas had been part of closed session discussions with the city’s finance committee where the location had been discussed alongside other options. The input from the finance committee was a big factor in guiding the process, she said.

“The City Council and Alder Abbas, in particular, have already delayed this project for a year based on trying to find the perfect site which, we knew then and we know now doesn’t exist,” Rhodes-Conway said. Alders hadn’t been invited, she said, because she knew the announcement would be sensitive.

“I think that’s appropriate for a big project like this,” she said.

The city took over providing homeless shelters for Madison’s homeless population in March 2020, after the pandemic shuttered decades of shelters operating in Madison church basements; the temporary shelter has moved twice and will move a third time this fall as delays in the permanent shelter continue.

The process to open third site for the temporary shelter is already underway at the Zeier Road site that the city had formerly chosen as its permanent location before the council nixed that plan. Jim O’Keefe, the director of Madison’s Community Development Division, said it will include beds for between 150 and 200 men. It will be operated by the nonprofit Porchlight, Inc. as the first two are, and will include similar services as were offered at Warner Park and at the former city Fleet Division building on First Street.

“This is not yet going to be a full-service facility like what we are envisioning at the permanent shelter,” he noted.

Abbas said he didn’t necessarily oppose the newly-announced permanent location at the city-owned lot at 1902 Bartillon Drive on the far east side, but that it wasn’t an ideal location.

“The closer we get to downtown the better it is for future residents and especially marginalized communities because they’ll be close to resources,” Abbas said. “Having said that, this particular location is definitely a much better location than Zeier Road.”

When asked, Abbas didn’t name a different location that the city had discussed that he thought would be better than the lot on Bartillon Drive, but said it still “wasn’t ideal”.

In a public post similarly blasting the mayor for her announcement, Alder Gary Halverson said this was the third time the mayor had “surprised” his district with another proposal for the men’s permanent shelter. (Under the city’s newly-drawn redistrict maps, he does not represent the site itself, but represents the neighborhood that it is part of.) He appeared to favor the existing temporary location on First Street as a preferred area closer to downtown, a spot the shelter is moving away from due to Madison’s public market construction set to start this fall.

“I am disappointed that throughout this process of searching for a permanent location for our men’s shelter, the voices of the homeless community have been largely dismissed,” he wrote. We have heard repeatedly from current and former homeless individuals that this community gravitates to the downtown area where they have had support from many organizations.”

Rhodes-Conway says the allegations that they weren’t part of the process weren’t fair.

“At the end of the day, there’s no perfect location,” she said. “There are only a bunch of imperfect choices and I think we settled on the best compromise.”

The announcement must still get council approval, so the war of words involving the council president could portend delays in getting the city’s approval to proceed with the $9 million project–funded jointly by the city, county, and federal Covid relief funds. Abbas voiced concerns about the ongoing Stoughton Road expansion project impacting the building of the shelter–concerns the mayor said she did not share, based on conversations with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Alders Abbas and Halverson said they were planning a press conference for Thursday morning, as well as neighborhood meetings to get additional feedback for the shelter location.

The city has evaluated a number of locations for the shelter. The mayor said they would introduce a resolution with the Common Council next week seeking approval to use the vacant city-owned site on Bartillion Drive for the new shelter.

Design work is then expected to take most of 2022, with tentative plans to begin construction in early 2023. Together, the city and county have budgeted $9 million for the project, $3 million of which will come from Dane County’s budget.