From the darkness, light

Two months after opening, Jackson Fonder discusses The Beacon’s progress.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Eight weeks into its young existence, The Beacon, Dane County’s new day shelter for the homeless, buzzes with activity. Cold temperatures have exasperated an already tenuous situation for the area’s homeless population and people occupy every chair on the facility’s first floor.

Jackson Fonder, 56, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Madison, visits at least once a week, often dressing inconspicuously in jeans and a cap while helping with laundry or taking out the trash. Today, in anticipation of this interview, his suit and signature hand-tied bow tie make him clearly uncomfortable. “This isn’t the place for a suit,” he whispers, as we quickly scoot upstairs.

The day center — a partnership between Catholic Charities, the city of Madison, Dane County, and United Way of Dane County — opened in October as a major program of Catholic Charities, which employs about 400 people around the area.

Fonder, a Green Bay native, spent 22 years in the U.S. Air Force and 15 years in corporate America as an executive with USAA, a financial services company for the military and its families, before retiring early and accepting a position with Middleton Outreach Ministry in Madison. A few years later, Catholic Charities came calling.

Fonder now says he’s “found his purpose,” and we wanted to understand why.

IB: Why were you so aggressive in bidding for The Beacon?
Catholic Charities has had a lot of experience helping people struggling with alcohol, drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty. It wasn’t a stretch for us. We exist because we serve the poor and the vulnerable, period. Who is more poor and vulnerable than this population?

IB: But you’re a corporate guy with a military background.
And a problem solver and very black and white. I am not a social worker, but I’m surrounded by a team of very talented people and really admire their dedication because it takes a special person to do this as a career and frankly, that’s not me. I come in, help out, check on my volunteers and employees (burnout is high), and leave. I treat this like we’re a business solving a community problem, and I love it. Who doesn’t like
to make a difference?

IB: Have the budget issues been resolved?
We’re short right now, but I’m confident that we will be able to do whatever we need to raise funds. It takes $700,000 a year to run this place and I have to raise $172,000 of that. Now, because of the shortages … that number is closer to $250,000. It’s not in my DNA to do something drastic, like close on weekends, so we’ll find a way.



IB: What keeps you up at night?
We’ve taken great steps with security here, but we did not expect the “bad apples” out there in the community who are not homeless preying on the homeless people we serve. That drives me insane. So we’re tightening security not because of our guests, but on behalf of our guests. Our job is to lead them out of homelessness, and this has to be a safe and secure place for them, our workers, and our volunteers.

IB: Some people believe Madison is making things too nice for the homeless, which will just invite more homeless. What say you?
Too nice? We’ve painted walls, have hot showers, a little bit of food, and coffee. There are no La-Z-Boy chairs, pool tables, or ESPN. This is not a rec center; this is a place to get help! There’s a broken spirit inside these walls. The common thread is trauma, significant trauma.

IB: A recent article reported that the number of homeless families in the state has declined. What’s your take?
All I know is that Madison’s pretty small, and that in eight weeks we’ve seen 200 people every day, seven days a week, and this is the first week it’s been cold, so we expect that number to rise.

IB: Is The Beacon meeting your expectations?
Absolutely. We’ve seen people find housing and jobs, or simply smile because they can finally get a warm meal, a hot shower, and a clean restroom. We’re also very blessed to partner with a number of other nonprofits and work with many others to reduce duplicating services.

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