During COVID, Nonprofit Keeps Hotels Afloat, Families Stayed | New
As COVID-19 canceled conventions and big events such as the Ironman, CrossFit Games and World Dairy Expo, hotels in Dane County suffered, with many closing for good.
Waunakee’s only hotel on Highway 19, once known as the Baymont Inn & Suites, transformed when the owners began working with nonprofits to provide transitional accommodations.
The owners, Tony Jakacki and Mian Asghar, said it was the alternative to closing the doors and shutting down permanently.
Today, Sankofa Educational Leadership United oversees much of the operation of what is currently a transitional housing program for displaced families as part of the organization’s rapid relocation program.
Sankofa refers to a West African proverb that roughly translates to “go back and get what is yours,” said the organization’s founder, Jalateefa Meyer.
The organization aims to address disparities in education, criminal justice and health. Housing is the key.
“It’s really important to dig deep into such a big social determinant of health and find ways to change that,” Meyer said.
Impact of COVID-19 on housing security
Sankofa supports families struggling with various housing issues. Before the pandemic, Sankofa provided help with families paying their bills, but when the Safer Home Order was issued last year, many lost their jobs and then their homes.
“The calls started to change in June,” Meyer said. Rather than asking for help paying the bills, people were already on the streets.
Unemployment benefits have also been delayed.
“People were losing housing that had never experienced homelessness before. It wasn’t just people with mental health or addiction issues, ”said Meyer, adding that they were blue collar workers.
“The calls kept coming in and slowing down. We were like, we need to take a break and strategically plan on how to help people, ”Meyer added.
Located in Sun Prairie, Sankofa Educational Leadership United primarily serves residents outside of Madison City. Meyer noted that many would not feel safe in Madison hotels, as shootings have become more common there.
Sankofa first found a few rooms at the Waunakee Hotel.
Jakacki and Asghar had previously provided transitional housing for clients of another nonprofit. However, this nonprofit did not help with housekeeping or janitorial services or supporting clients with training and case management.
Hotel staff were ill-equipped to meet the needs of displaced families.
“We asked the owners, ‘How would you feel if Sankofa took over the building?’ ”Meyer said. “We realized we needed case managers and staff around the clock. We needed people who could problem-solve with people in crisis. “
Many families are under extreme financial stress because they do not have secure housing.
Sankofa also provides residents with linens, towels and cleaning supplies to take away when permanent accommodation is secure. The hotel provides housekeeping once a week and guests can use the on-site laundry facilities.
Sankofa also offers educational training in the hotel’s conference room. During the pandemic, this was done via Zoom. United Way provided cell phones for families so they could participate from their rooms.
Meyer called the rapid relocation a “housing first” program. When a client comes to Sankofa, a needs assessment is carried out within the first 72 hours to identify barriers to housing stability such as mental health or health care issues, poor credit, lack of employment. or transport and others.
Based on this assessment, case managers provide a housing stability plan to ensure clients can overcome any obstacles.
The goal is to obtain housing within 30 to 90 days.
Meyer described three different models. For those with no income, Sankofa will pay the first month’s rent and security deposit, then continue to help with smaller amounts as the tenant finds employment and financial stability.
Sankofa also supports those who are disabled, helping with rent until Section 8 accommodation can be found.
“If income is not a barrier, we always have a gradual release of responsibilities,” Meyer said. Case managers monitor along the way to make sure bills are paid.
Currently, the Waunakee Hotel has 37 rooms reserved for families. The Magnuson Grand Hotel Madison offers 50 rooms for families and singles.
Sankofa prioritizes served customers, responding first to those who have young children on the street or who live out of a vehicle. Families with children under the age of 2 are the first to receive attention. Meyer said it was a way for Sankofa to tackle the high infant mortality rate among African Americans.
Meyer estimates that about 50 families are on a waiting list for the rapid relocation program.
Ireanna Anderson is expecting her fourth child in early July. Her 10 and 6 year old children were in school when the Tribune visited the hotel. Anderson was living in Janesville when she lost her unit in Section 8 in January. She lives at the Waunakee Hotel and is expected to move into an apartment on Allied Drive.
Anderson said she was grateful for the services Sankofa provides to single women and families. Her third born, 3-year-old Jamiya, attends daycare when Anderson works at KFC. She previously had two jobs, but one put her on maternity leave.
“It’s wonderful,” she said of returning to work and finding housing. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Anderson said case managers look after the families and she meets with hers every week.
Jakacki said he and Asghar were considering closing the hotel when they met Meyer and the others in Sankofa. They liked the hotel’s accommodation to be very temporary for residents, and initially promised five to ten rooms. They said the other nonprofit they were working with to provide transitional housing was ill-suited because their hotel staff were not trained to work with people in crisis.
But they started to develop a relationship with Sankofa and provided more rooms.
The two owners estimate that 70 percent of their hotel rooms have hosted the overflow at major Dane County events like the CrossFit Games and the World Dairy Expo; Travel risks during COVID-19 prevented guests from visiting family in Waunakee for weddings or graduation ceremonies.
They also don’t expect the accommodation situation to change anytime soon. Asghar said industry experts predict that hotel stays may start increasing in 2023 or 2024.
“All over the country, destination-based hotels are making a lot of money, but we’re not a destination-based hotel,” Asghar said.
Since the hotel is now operating as a non-profit organization, it does not charge room tax. Jakacki said the owners spoke to village officials and offered tourism dollars.
Jakacki and Asghar intended to renovate the hotel and add a third floor in 2019.
“We were about to file a deposit with an architect for the construction plans,” Jakacki said, adding that the pandemic had put the plans on hold.
The hotel accepts contributions of clothing, especially professional clothing for job interviews and food. Sankofa also accepts monetary contributions.