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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 46.0° F  Overcast
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MAD TALK

A different approach at Porchlight's homeless day shelter on East Washington

Gillmore: 'It's us deciding as a group what our goal is.'
Gillmore: 'It's us deciding as a group what our goal is.'
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Porchlight operates the temporary day shelter that opened at 827 E. Washington Ave. last November. The agency is the major provider of homeless services here, including the men's overnight shelter in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church. But its approach to the new facility is so different that some homeless people believe Porchlight is not involved.

"There's no hierarchy," says Sarah Gillmore, who manages the shelter, along with Z! Haukeness. "It's not 'I have power, you don't have power.' It's us deciding as a group what our goal is."

The shelter, which serves 125 people a day, operates with the principle of fostering relationships and working together. Meetings are regularly held to discuss anything from the time for a yoga class to how the shelter's neighbors feel about them. Many people who use the shelter have taken on responsibilities, such as cleaning up trash around the neighborhood, cooking or leading activity groups.

Being sensitive to trauma is key, Gillmore says. "Most folks we're interacting with have had something traumatic happen, whether it's happened now or in the past."

Other facilities run by Porchlight are known for strict rules. For instance, people who have been drinking aren't necessarily allowed to stay at the Grace shelter in warm weather. While drinking and drug use aren't allowed at the day shelter, intoxicated people aren't automatically kicked out. And long-term bans are not instituted, the way they are at Grace.

"If somebody happens to be intoxicated and it's a non-issue, it's a non-issue," Gillmore says. Drunks are confronted only if they become disruptive or abusive. "If the [basic needs] aren't met, how in the hell can we demand change in other levels of life, specifically when it comes to substance use and addiction?"

So far, the shelter has had to call for help seven times. Five of those were people who needed to go to detox.

One woman who recently became homeless and stays at the Salvation Army says she appreciates the day shelter. "There are things to do, you're fed, and it's warm," she says. But, she allows, "the [drunk people] are a problem sometimes."

The day shelter on East Washington will close on March 31. The county is currently searching for a permanent location, which will operate year-round. Gillmore says she would like to be involved in running that one when plans are finalized.

Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight, says he's been pleased with the results. "To some extent, it is very dependent on having the right person with the right experience, mindset, training and personality running it," he says. "Sarah and Z! happen to be the right folks.

"It's a good start, and it should be continued in some way," Schooler adds. "I'm not entirely certain it can be sustained. But someone should definitely try."


[Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect the specific policy regarding alcohol at the emergency shelter operated by Porchlight at Grace Episcopal Church. While the Grace shelter is less tolerant of intoxicated people than the temporary day shelter (also run by Porchlight), it does not turn away inebriated men during cold winter months. During warm weather, it turns away intoxicated men who are over the legal limit of .08 percent blood alcohol content. Rules posted at the shelter read: "Guests will not be admitted if incapacitated by alcohol or drugs. Staff assessment of incapacitation is final. Guests who do not comply with the rules will be asked to leave. Repeated violations will result in permanent denial of entry."]

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