- Associated Press - Saturday, December 31, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Robert Morrison, homeless in Madison for four years, has no safe place to store his belongings and lugs clothing and personal items with him for fear they will be stolen.

The lack of safe storage, he told the Wisconsin State Journal (https://bit.ly/2iusCjw ), is a constant burden, inhibiting his mobility and ability to make appointments and secure work.

“I’m so burned out from carrying all this stuff on my back,” he said at a homeless day shelter in the basement of Bethel Lutheran Church Downtown, his coats, backpacks and plastic bags with other gear nearby. “I’ve had so many things stolen from me. There’s nothing safe.”

But in coming months, Morrison and other homeless may benefit from a grass-roots initiative called “Keys to Dignity” that could help them keep their belongings safe in outdoor lockers and establish relationships with advocates and service agencies as they wait for housing.

The initiative is led by the volunteer advocate and support group Friends of State Street Family, which is informally joining with the city, Dane County, social service providers and others. Earlier this month, the city approved an ordinance to allow the storage lockers in several zoning districts, and the county has approved funds to buy lockers.

The Friends of State Street Family hopes to provide:

- 100 backpacks designed for people living outside that are numbered and registered to the users and filled with survival gear.

- 100 numbered and registered outdoor lockers about the size of high school locker.

- Additional storage. When people register for a backpack or locker, extra items can be taken for six months to Sanctuary Storage at the Social Justice Center, 1202 Williamson St. Each person would get up to two 35-gallon bins with the same number as the backpack and locker.

- Disposal. Items too large for the backpack, locker or Sanctuary Storage could be donated to a thrift shop, taken to a friend’s home, or put in a dumpster. The homeless would get gift certificates at a thrift shop to replace disposed items once housing is secured.

- 100 bicycles or six-month bus passes to allow for more mobility.

“The key is that all of these things work together to help someone re-integrate into society,” said Tami Fleming, founder of Friends of State Street Family.

“They won’t have to carry things around with them,” she said. “They will be able to get around to appointments, interviews or to other places away from the Downtown, where they are often stuck. They will have a case manager or outreach person who will go to bat for them.”

As part of registration, the homeless individuals and families would be required to fill out a special form that places them on prioritized lists for housing based on how long they’ve been homeless and their vulnerability.

Morrison, 50, who lives from a tent, gets occasional work and volunteers at Bethel, welcomes the initiative.

“I can’t be carrying this stuff on the bus,” he said. “I can’t go look for work. It’s really a burden on me. We need a place where our stuff is safe.”

A key is the lockers, which would be customized and camouflaged by Jesse Ransom, an engineering technician at Orbitech Technology Corp. and member of Sector67, a community workspace on the East Side.

The lockers would contain a listing of social services and be customized with mail slots, solar powered exterior lights and interior lighting, Ransom said. They would also be painted to blend in with their background, he said, explaining that if the site was, for example, a brick building, the locker would be painted to look like brickwork.

Ransom expects to place an order for 100 lockers in coming weeks. A few lockers may be put out soon, but the majority will be located by mid-2017.

“These guys need a place to store their stuff,” Ransom said. “I just like giving back. I just like helping.”

Fleming and others have been working on Keys to Dignity since the summer of 2015, when the city dismantled a primitive, fenced storage area behind the Madison Municipal Building.

The fenced area was open for just three months and taken down due to alleged illicit and unhealthy activity. Since then, people who are homeless have had no place Downtown to store belongings, with the closest location the supervised storage the city pays for at the Social Justice Center.

The lockers would be placed in groups of three, six or nine at locations around the city, Fleming said. They would be managed, monitored and kept clean by the friends and the lockers’ hosts.

The city’s new ordinance allows lockers in the central Downtown, all mixed-use, commercial and employment districts, and two other zoning districts. They must be operated by a religious or nonprofit organizations with a management plan, lighting and trash containers nearby. No more than 10 lockers, each no larger than 11.25 cubic feet, are allowed on any zoning lot. Friends of State Street Family and Madison police could enter lockers for suspicious activity or material.

Dane County’s $25,000 would buy lockers that could be placed inside or outside of the county’s parking ramp near the Dane County Courthouse or other county-owned properties Downtown.

“The county understands long-term storage is a need and is committed to partnering with others to expand that option in this area,” said Casey Becker, homeless services manager for the county Department of Human Services. “The proposal from Friends of State Street Family is appealing because it proposes to provide secure, long-term storage that can be accessed by the individual when they need it.”

The site “host” would ensure someone to check on the person, care for the property, help users get the things they need to survive and assess vulnerabilities, Fleming said.

“I’m confident it’s really going to help a lot of people,” she said. “It’s not just a place to put their stuff. It’s a way to connect with services.”


Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj

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