Catholic Charities CEO Jackson Fonder (l-r) and Director of Strategy Derrick Smith are leading the initiative to convert the former Greater
Madison Chamber of Commerce building on E. Washington Ave. (above) into a homeless day center.
Catholic Charities to Manage Homeless Day
Center in Former Chamber of Commerce
A Safe Haven with Opportunities
By Jonathan Gramling
The problems of the homeless in Madison and Dane County have almost bounced around to one entity or another for years. While there are
night-time shelters at Grace Episcopal Church, The Salvation Army and other sites, for the daytime it’s been pretty much “on your own.”
For a long time, many homeless hung out in the basement of the State Capitol when the winter came. The Walker Administration moved them out
and so some took up residence on the steps of the City-County Building. And there have always been some homeless who hung out at the
Madison Downtown Library.
And while they always found places to hang out and stay warm, there has been little concerted, long term effort to holistically work with people
who are homeless to get back on their feet and become self-sustaining members of the community.
Well, all of that is about to change this fall when a homeless day center opens up at 615 E. Washington Ave., the former home of the Greater
Madison Chamber of Commerce. The say center is made possible through a collaboration between the city of Madison, Dane County, United
Way and Catholic Charities, with Catholic Charities assuming the day-to-day management of the facility. It’s a natural fit for Catholic Charities,
which has 400 employees providing services in 11 counties in south central Wisconsin.
“We operate programs in four major areas: developmental disabilities, aging, alcohol and drug treatment and families and children,” said
Jackson Fonder, Catholic Charities CEO. “When we think about poverty and homelessness and what we are doing with the homeless center, it
falls right under families and children. We’ve been working in areas that surround homelessness like the alcohol and drug treatment, mental
illness, counseling with struggling families and the poverty piece around food and basic needs. The Day Center has been run in one form or
another on a much smaller scale, on and off, for the last several years. This is the first time that we, as a community, are going to be able to
group this many services under one roof, which is pretty exciting.”
The Day Center will be part respite center, part social service and treatment center, a one-stop shop to help the homeless get back on their feet.
“You have 6,000 upstairs and 6,000 downstairs,” Fonder said. “The bottom portion is going to be basic needs around operations like
restrooms, showers, laundry, mail, a kitchen, a family area, books and a place to read and an outdoor courtyard. We’ll have coffee and
lunches. Upstairs, is a collective of other non-profits. That’s where the rubber meets the road, sort of to speak. We’ll have things like case
management, housing assistance and mental health counseling. We also have the potential for preventative medical assistance and even
haircuts can be tossed in there.”
The Day Center will also have a direct tie-in with the night-time shelters.
“We will be providing transportation to and from the night-time shelters,” Fonder said. “We’re a daytime operation open seven days per week,
365 days per year during the day. In the morning, we’re going to go pick these men and women up at the night shelters and bring them to our
location. They can receive all of these services. We can help them navigate the system and walk through things. The whole intent is very
simple. We’re trying to get them out of homelessness.”
Catholic Charities has been making the right moves to ensure that the day center will meet the needs of the homeless. They have visited
similar centers across the country to see what works and what doesn’t. And they have been getting some experience under their belts
helping to operate the warming station at Bethel Lutheran.
“We are in partnership with Bethel Lutheran right now, which has the day warming center at their church,” said Derrick Smith, director of
strategy. “It was two days. We felt that wasn’t sufficient for our homeless population. And so, Jackson and the board said, ‘Hey it will be a great
opportunity for us to learn and get to know and build trust with the homeless population. So we partnered with them to get that open five days
per week. We partner with Bethel Lutheran five days per week, Monday through Friday, eight hours per day to help support that day group right
now with the idea that when our center opens up, it will be as seamless as it can be to take it over to 615 E. Washington Avenue.”
In order for the day center to work, it will need to offer comprehensive services through collaboration with other non-profits with expertise in
“It’s a little early to plug some of the services in,” Fonder said. “You can imagine how many meetings we’ve had with some wonderful
organizations that we want to plug and play. You’re looking at organizations and people like the Community Action Coalition, Porchlight, The
Road Home, The Salvation Army and the Urban League for job development. Collaboration takes a lot of work to do it right. That is the trusting
relationship that we’re going to need to establish with our partners. That is not a switch that you flip on and everything is great. You’re talking
about different organizations, different personalities, multiple folks coming in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We have to operate as one
because we’re also building those trusting relationships with the men and women who are walking through the door who need our help. That is
a delicate, sensitive matter. It’s going to take a lot of effort. We’re not going to have it perfect on Day One. We’re going to have to work like
crazy so that we can leverage these resources and help these folks get the help that they need.”
The day center is also going to rely on “people power” in order to keep the center open 365 days per year. Tammy Fleming, former executive
director of Friends of the State Street Family, has been hired as the volunteer coordinator. She will be busy.
“Our staff is going to be diverse because if you look at the demographics of the homeless here in Madison, over 50 percent are African
American,” Smith said. “Being African American and seeing and wanting to be involved, it’s always nice when you see someone who looks
like them. So we are looking to not only diversify our staff positions, but also our volunteers. We have to have volunteers to cover about
30,000 volunteer hours per year. We need 20 volunteers per day, 365 days per year. We want this to be a community project, a community
program, community center. The city asked for this. The communities asked for this. Do we want our homeless to be off the street or not? They
need help. We all need help serving the poor and the vulnerable. So this is an opportunity for all Madisonians, all Dane County residents to be a
part of this success story to get our brothers and sisters who are homeless off the street and into good, fulfilling lives.”
While the center will be operated by Catholic Charities, the center is secular and not religion-based. All are welcome. “We are appealing to
anyone to get involved with this,” Smith said. “Homelessness is not a religious-based issue. It can affect anyone. Only by the grace of God, it
could be any one of us. The fact of the matter is we are going to the faith communities. We are going to utilize the volunteers at UW-Madison.
We’re going to utilize retirees who just want to give. They might not have enough money to give to the shelter, but they have time, energy and
value for other human beings. Anyone who wants to be a part of it, we want them to be involved even if they only have an hour or two hours or
four hours every day or five days per week or seven days per week. We’re not going to not use them. If they want to come and be a successful
part of what we are trying to accomplish, we’re going to ask for everyone to be a part of it.”
The homeless too will be engaged to help operate the center.
“What we are going to do is have not only a community advisory council made up of people in the community, but also internally there is going
to be a guest advisory council,” Smith emphasized. “We’re going to call all of the homeless who come into our center guests. They are going to
be guests of ours. Who are the ones who rise above and want to participate of our success? Maybe someone who is homeless now can step
up and help out in our laundry room, our shower area and our computer labs and work with our volunteers and our staff to make that a great
place to be.”
Madison/Dane County has the opportunity to become a leader in Wisconsin in helping the homeless turn their lives around. But it will take a
community effort to make it work. Be a part of the change.
To find out more about volunteer opportunities, email Tammy Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org. People can also sign up
helpmadisonhomeless.org. For more information about the shelter, contact Derrick Smith at email@example.com