By Barbara Lyon
It took a pandemic of unprecedented magnitude to demonstrate how easily the things we take for granted – a job, food on the table, a roof over our heads – can disappear. For example, it wasn’t long after the shutdown in March 2020 that Stepping Stones of Dunn County averaged more than 1,600 visits a month to its food pantry.
By the end of the year, Stepping Stones had also provided 6,300 nights of shelter to the homeless, a count set to exceed 9,000 during 2021. Some of the families have been housed in its two apartment-style shelters on South Broadway and Stout Road in Menomonie. The majority have been sheltered through local hotels, primarily funded through temporary COVID-relief grants. To address an ever-increasing need for housing for the homeless, however, hotel stays are a temporary solution that is both expensive and unsustainable.
Homelessness is not an individual issue. It has a ripple effect throughout Dunn County by impacting the availability of healthcare resources, crime and safety, workforce, and use of tax dollars. Stepping Stones works to alleviate this issue by empowering clients to regain, sustain, or create self‐reliance. “We aren’t meeting even half of the need, despite the increased level of service.” Executive Director of Stepping Stones, Padraig Gallagher said. “Stepping Stones is providing twice the number of shelter nights that the program typically did prior to the pandemic, but we have averaged 28 households on our waitlist in 2021”. The need is clear and Stepping Stones is working on a way to help meet it. Plans are in the works to construct a new shelter facility on the property that Stepping Stones owns at 1620 Stout Road.
The 5,800-square-foot facility will focus on housing homeless individual adults with accommodations for up to 20 clients in single-bed rooms. The design will minimize the risk associated with congregate living during pandemics. A laundry room and secure storage will also help with clients’ material needs. In addition to a small commercial kitchen and community dining area, there will be a community resource office for partner agency services, shelter staff offices and a main staff desk with visibility of all common areas.
The total facility cost is estimated at just under $1.5 million. There are two very different possibilities to fund the project.
The first potential source of funding is a State of Wisconsin Neighborhood Investment Fund grant. On Nov. 1, The Menomonie City Council approved a partnership between the city and Stepping Stones to apply for this funding. Just ten days later, on Nov. 11, the city submitted the application for the grant. The grant award will be announced in January 2022 and, if approved, would cover the cost for the new shelter.
The second option for funding would only be pursued if the grant is not awarded for the project. It has, however, been in the works for months. Stepping Stones is working with Mark Davy & Associates of Minneapolis, Minn., to conduct a feasibility study for a capital campaign. Michael and Whitney Davy are currently reaching out to members of the community to determine the level of support for the project. “The feasibility study will be an instrumental first step in engaging the community in this project and providing a roadmap for future fundraising efforts.” Michael Davy said. “We look forward to receiving input from community leaders and potential donors on how to make this vision a reality.”
If a capital campaign to fund the shelter is needed, it would begin in early 2022 and likely span the majority of the year. If the grant is awarded, however, the site will be prepared for the new facility during the 2022 building season. “Either way, we want to have the shelter running for the 2023-24 winter.” Gallagher said. Aside from securing funding, several steps are needed to make the facility a reality. A building committee will finalize the design, permits will be applied for and the community will have a chance to provide feedback.
Then, and only then, shovels can hit dirt. “There are a lot of people working to make this happen” Gallagher said “Regardless of how we get there, this will be a facility for the community to use to take care of its own.”
Barbara Lyon is the communications specialist for Stepping Stones of Dunn County. She can be reached at email@example.com or 715-235-2920, ext. 206.