Don’t give up on homeless shelter project
Things seemed to be on-track for Taylor County Supportive Housing (TCSH) to open a shelter (Taylor House) in the city of Medford to transition people from homelessness to living independently. In the past several months, the group used $124,000 in grant funds to purchase a previously vacant building, hired a director to develop and oversee programs and has established annual fundraising activities and partnerships which will help with operational costs going forward.
All that work came to a screeching halt last week when the engineering estimates for renovating Taylor House for the program’s use brought with it a $550,000 price tag. This is far in excess of the amount remaining in the community development block grant that was used to purchase the building.
By any metric, spending $550,000 to renovate and remodel a residential structure is a lot of money. This alone is enough to give pause to the project to determine if the better option would be to hire a bulldozer and start with a clean slate and a new building.
Staff at the Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA), which administers the grant program, recognized the excessive remodeling costs and suggested shelter organizers seek additional grant funds that just became available last week through COVID-19 relief programs. The shelter project seems a perfect fit for the new grant. As with the original CDBG funds, the grant must go to a government entity rather than TCSH being able to apply on their own.
While no one objects to the idea of getting an additional half million dollars in grant funded construction into the local community, the grants come with some major strings attached to them. The work must be completed and the shelter open by the end of 2022. If not completed by then the county would be on the hook for paying back all the grant funds regardless of how much has been spent up to that point. At a time when orders for things like building components, appliances and furniture are taking months to get delivered, there is a very real risk that the project might be delayed further. The potential for the county to have to pay back $880,000 has effectively stopped the shelter project until the full county board decides on a path forward later this month.
Shelter organizers and county officials are being told by the DOA staff that there is no flexibility for the deadlines about when funds must be spent and the risk to the county. While DOA staff members have little flexibility in interpreting the rules, county officials and shelter organizers should contact Rep. James Edming, Sen. Jerry Petrowski and Gov. Tony Evers about pursuing alternative channels to gaining more time given the unique challenges in the current economy.
Homelessness remains a concern in Taylor County and throughout rural Wisconsin. Pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away. Programs such as TCSH seek to provide an opportunity for people to take that all important first step toward independent living.