Neighbors air concerns, offer support for new housing for homeless families

August 24, 2018

More than 160 residents voiced concerns but also offered support and solutions at a special neighborhood meeting Thursday night to discuss crime and other problems at Madison’s first attempt at a Housing First approach to housing homeless families.

Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, who voiced continuing support for the 45-unit building at 7933 Tree Lane on the Far West Side, called the meeting amid a high number of police calls to the site since nonprofit Heartland Housing opened the $11.75 million project in mid-June.

The project has helped 48 adults and 104 dependents get off the streets or out of temporary shelter, with few preconditions.

In July, police got 26 calls to Tree Lane, but from Aug. 1 to Aug. 19, police received 43 calls to the site, including for three large-scale fights. The calls have been for disturbances, domestic issues and noise complaints, not major crimes, police data show. Many of the issues are caused by guests and visitors, including some who are not invited, Heartland officials said.

At the two-hour meeting, attended by Heartland officials and representatives from YWCA Madison, which provides support services at the property, Police Chief Mike Koval, Community Development Division Director Jim O’Keefe and residents discussed whether the facility was opened too soon and its impacts on the neighborhood, and the safety of unattended children on busy streets.

But there was also support for Heartland’s mission to help the homeless find housing and offers to help ranging from tutoring to a cookout or block party. The crowd, which filled a large meeting room at High Point Church, was polite despite a few murmurs to responses from Heartland officials.

Heartland executive director Michael Goldberg invited residents to share concerns and received a long list, including loitering, loud music, littering, vandalism, drinking and drug use, illegal parking, fights, weapons possession, trespassing, opening the facility before playground equipment was installed or the parking lot finished, and unattended children in the parking lot and walking down Tree Lane to a nearby park.

“It’s just dangerous,” one resident said.

Those attending the meeting called for more comprehensive security, signs and speed bumps on Tree Lane to calm traffic, child care or activities for children, and more communication.

Goldberg said there is always a period of adjustment when opening housing for the homeless and that challenges are being resolved.

The city’s first stab at Housing First — an approach that seeks to get the chronically homeless into housing before offering services — is Heartland’s $8.9 million, four-story, 60-unit Rethke Terrace. It opened for single chronic and veteran homeless at 715 Rethke Ave. on the East Side in June 2016. It also generated police calls but has calmed, Goldberg said. The nonprofit also operates 18 other facilities in Chicago and Milwaukee.

“We have taken people off the street and out of shelter,” Goldberg said. “For residents, it’s been life-changing. We want to be a part of the neighborhood and the community.”

Tree Lane resident Sylvia Mallett, an Army veteran who had been hospitalized and was able to move to the project after her release, gave an impassioned speech, saying homeless families needed housing and didn’t mind if they didn’t arrive under ideal circumstances. She said the overwhelming majority of residents are grateful and want to be part of the neighborhood.

“We’re new to your community and you’re new to us. Each and every one of us is human. We’ve been through some things. We have to come together to make this work for us,” she said to the loudest applause of the evening.

Goldberg and YWCA Madison’s CEO, Vanessa McDowell, said staffing is being increased to include a full-time project manager and another support-services staff position. Heartland also has security cameras inside and outside the building.

Heartland seeks to avoid removing tenants at any site, Goldberg said. But staff connects with and works with residents found to be involved in inappropriate behavior that violates lease provisions and, as a last option, tenants can be transitioned from the project, he said.

Amid the concerns, many attending the meeting offered ideas to help Tree Lane tenants adjust to the community. Ideas included an open house, block party, newsletters, a suggestion box for tenants and sharing skills, such as through cooking classes.

“What can we do to help?” one neighborhood resident said. “I want them to feel safe and comfortable.”

Heartland will continue to build relations with the police, provide a means for neighborhood residents to be involved with the project, and do more neighborhood meetings, Goldberg said.

Skidmore said he will immediately contact city Traffic Engineering to discuss safety upgrades to Tree Lane, intends to schedule a meeting with tenants to hear their concerns, and will create a bi-weekly newsletter to keep the neighborhood informed.

“We’re going to stay at this,” O’Keefe said. “We’re going to continue to talk to you and address these issues.”

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