Nonprofit Spotlight: Porchlight, Inc.

Posted by Samantha Haas on Thursday, October 20th, 2022 at 12:29pm.

When “Safer at Home” orders and social distancing guidelines went into place, shelters that used to be open to folks experiencing homelessness day or night were forced to rethink their operations. One such shelter that has been trying to secure a larger and more permanent “home” is operated by Porchlight, Inc., which this month reached a record of housing 207 people in one night. 

Porchlight’s story began “when two people froze to death on the streets of Madison in 1984 – back when no one thought we had a homeless problem here,” said Porchlight Executive Director Karla Thennes. “Faith communities got together and rented the parsonage next to churches, got volunteers, and got sandwiches, and said, ‘If you’re homeless, come on in,’ and they did.” 

For 35 years until the start of the pandemic, Porchlight’s main overnight emergency shelter for individuals who identify as male had been located downtown in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church. However, the nonprofit needed more space to spread guests out, especially before masks were readily available. So after numerous conversations with the city and county, it was decided that Porchlight temporarily move to Warner Park Community Recreation Center on the north side in March 2020. 

Anticipating an increase in need for the winter months, the shelter once again moved to a larger space at the former Fleet Services Building on North First Street (the site of the proposed Madison Public Market) on the east side of the isthmus. Then in mid-October of 2022, Porchlight moved into its third temporary drop-in shelter on Zeier Road, the old Savers site by East Towne Mall.

All of the sites have been accessible near a bus line, Thennes said, but their layouts and accommodations haven’t been ideal. That’s why the nonprofit is thrilled they’ve been selected to be the lead operator of Madison’s future permanent homeless shelter, complete with restrooms, showers, kitchen, laundry facilities, and meeting rooms made specifically for this vulnerable population in mind. “The City and County are building us a new purpose-built shelter on Bartillon Drive to open in 2025. Not only will this be a place of shelter, but also to help people find permanent housing,” she said. Conversations are happening to see if it’s feasible to stay open 24/7 and offer mental health, alcohol, and housing counseling services at the future location. 

Having grown up in a small town in Minnesota, Thennes vividly remembers an experience during her senior class trip to the nation’s capital that reshaped her perceptions and career path. Thennes and a few of her friends were approached by an individual who asked them for a dollar so he could get something to eat, but they ignored the man because they had been instructed by chaperones not to talk to anyone. “Don’t pretend like you don’t hear me,” she remembers the man saying. However, she then witnessed the man ask someone else on the street the same question; this time a tourist gave him the money and watched him walk to a food stand to buy a hot dog. Not cigarettes, like the high schoolers assumed. “I thought I always wanted to be a social worker,” Thennes said. “But that’s when I realized I wanted to dedicate my life with folks who are homeless.”

Thennes started with Porchlight as an intern 32 years ago, and after she finished grad school at UW-Madison she returned to work at the nonprofit and has never left. Five years ago, she became the executive director and leads the staff and volunteers in their mission to “reduce homelessness in Dane County by collaborating with the community to provide shelter, affordable housing, and supportive services that eliminate barriers and empower the individuals and families we serve.”

Porchlight, which also owns 375 units of efficiency housing for homeless and low-income families and singles, is the largest provider of low-cost housing and homeless services in Dane County. Some of its other services include case and property management, health screenings, DIGS (Dwelling Intervention Grants & Sustenance) eviction prevention program, Porchlight Products employment in training program, Safe Haven day resource center folks experiencing homelessness with severe mental health issues, and a Veterans Transitional Housing Program.

These resources have been life-changing for folks like Tom, who has lived at Porchlight’s Brooks Street building for over 30 years and recently announced that he found a 1-bedroom subsidized housing apartment through the city. And Farhiyo, who was able to get financial help toward a deposit to secure housing for her and her sons. And Mickey, who credits Porchlight with providing him shelter, food, and case management assistance while he looked for an apartment. And Marcial, who has volunteered to offer free haircuts while a guest at the shelter.

Prior to the pandemic, it cost Porchlight $500,000 per year to run the shelter. Today, that figure is closer to $2.4 million, and it remains to be seen what the operating costs of the future shelter will be when federal CARES Act funding is gone. For example, when the shelter was housed at the church, breakfast and supper were donated and served by more than 70 groups made up of 1,000 volunteers. Porchlight now spends $800,000 per year on food and has had to quadruple its staff, plus contract out for busing, cleaning linens, and sanitizing the building. 

Thennes said the community has always been the largest supporter of the shelter, not only through donations but also through volunteers. And the need for both is great.

Thank you to those who contributed winter hats, gloves, travel size hygiene and first aid items, belts, notebooks, mini appointment books, ear buds and wash cloths to our donation drive for Porchlight this month! To learn more or set up your own donation drive, visit

On November 1st, Porchlight will hold its Annual Recognition Celebration, its largest fundraiser of the year, at Monona Terrace. With a goal of raising over $100,000 for homeless services in Dane County, donations from the event and silent auction will assist people in their transition from homelessness into stable housing. To purchase tickets, visit

“We love how the community supports us and our needs,” Thennes said. To learn how you can support Porchlight, visit

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