When COVID-19 conventions and major events such as the Ironman, CrossFit Games and the World Dairy Expo canceled, hotels in Dane County suffered, with many closing for good.

Waunakee’s only hotel on the highway. 19, once known as Baymont Inn & Suites, transformed when owners began working with nonprofits to offer temporary accommodation.

Owners Tony Jakacki and Mian Asghar said this was the alternative of closing the doors and closing them for good.

Today, Sankofa Educational Leadership United oversees much of the operation of a currently temporary housing program for displaced families as part of the organization’s rapid recovery program.

Sankofa refers to a West African proverb which roughly translated means: “Go back and get what is yours,” explained the founder of the organization, Jalateefa Meyer.

The organization aims to eliminate disparities in education, criminal justice and health. Housing is the key.

“It’s really important to dig deep into such a large social determinant of health and find ways to change that,” Meyer said.

COVID-19 Impact on Housing Security

Sankofa supports families with a variety of housing problems. Before the pandemic, Sankofa was helping families pay bills, but when the Safer at Home Order was passed last year, many lost their jobs and then their homes.

“The calls began to change in June,” said Meyer. Instead of seeking help paying bills, people were already on the streets.

Unemployment benefits have also been delayed.

“People lost homes that had never been homeless before. It wasn’t just people with mental health problems or drug problems, “Meyer said, adding that they were workers.

“The calls kept coming in and didn’t slow down. We thought we need to stop and work out a strategic plan on how we can help people, ”added Meyer.

Sankofa Educational Leadership United is located on Sun Prairie and primarily serves residents outside of Madison City. Meyer noted that many would not feel safe at Madison hotels as shootings have become more common there.

Sankofa initially found some rooms in the Waunakee Hotel.

Jakacki and Asghar had previously provided temporary housing for clients of other non-profit organizations. However, this nonprofit did not help with maintenance or janitorial services, or provide customer support with training and case management.

Hotel staff were poorly equipped to meet the needs of displaced families.

“We asked the owners how would you feel if Sankofa took over the building?” Said Meyer.

“We realized we needed case managers and staff around the clock. We needed people with the ability to solve problems with people in crisis. “

Many families there have financial problems with extreme stress due to a lack of safe accommodation.

Sankofa also provides the residents with bed linen, towels and cleaning products that they can take with them if permanent accommodation is secured. The hotel offers housekeeping once a week. Customers can use the on-site laundry.

Sankofa also offers training in the hotel’s conference room. During the pandemic, this was done through Zoom. United Way provided the families with cell phones so that they could participate from their rooms.

Meyer called the rapid relocation a “Housing First” program. When a customer comes to Sankofa, a needs analysis is carried out within the first 72 hours to identify obstacles to the stability of the living space, such as B. Mental health or health problems, poor creditworthiness, lack of employment or transportation, and others.

Based on this assessment, the case managers create a home stabilization plan to ensure clients can overcome any obstacles.

The aim is to secure the living space within 30 to 90 days.

Meyer described three different models. For those without an income, Sankofa pays the rent and the deposit for the first month and then helps out with smaller amounts if the tenant finds work and financial stability.

Sankofa also assists those who are unable to work and helps with renting until accommodation can be found in Section 8.

“If the income is not an obstacle, we solve the responsibilities gradually,” said Meyer. Case managers monitor along the way to ensure bills are paid.

Currently the Waunakee Hotel has 37 rooms for families only. The Magnuson Grand Hotel Madison near Cambridge offers 50 rooms for families and individuals.

Sankofa prioritizes the customers it takes care of and reacts first to those with small children on the street or who live out of a vehicle. Families with children under 2 years of age receive attention first. Meyer said this is one way Sankofa is addressing high child mortality rates among African Americans.

Meyer estimates that around 50 families are on a waiting list for the quick conversion program.

Ireanna Anderson is expecting her fourth child in early July. Her 10 and 6 year olds were in school when the Tribune visited the hotel. Anderson had been living in Janesville when she lost her Section 8 apartment in January. She lived at the Waunakee Hotel and is slated 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 Jamiya, 3 years old, visits childcare when Anderson works at KFC. She previously had two jobs, but one put her on maternity leave.

“It feels wonderful,” she said of returning to work and looking for a place to stay. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Anderson said the case managers look after the families and she meets with theirs weekly.

Jakacki said he and Asghar were considering closing the hotel when they met Meyer and the others in Sankofa. They thought it was a good thing that the hotel accommodations for the residents were only temporary and initially promised five to ten rooms. They said the other nonprofit they worked with to provide temporary housing was ill-suited as their hotel staff were not trained to work with people in crisis.

But they started to develop a relationship with Sankofa and made more rooms available.

The two owners estimate that 70 percent of their hotel’s rooms were overcrowded from major Dane County events like the CrossFit Games and the World Dairy Expo. Travel risks during COVID-19 prevented guests from staying when visiting family in Waunakee for weddings or graduations.

They also don’t expect the housing situation to change anytime soon. According to Asghar, industry experts expect hotel stays to increase again in 2023 or 2024.

“Nationwide, destination hotels make good money, but we are not a destination hotel,” said Asghar.

As the hotel is now a non-profit, there is no room tax. Jakacki said the owners spoke to village officials and offered tourism dollars.

Jakacki and Asghar had plans to renovate the hotel and add a third floor in 2019.

“We were just about to leave bail with an architect for building plans,” Jakacki said, adding that the pandemic had put the plans on hold.

The hotel accepts contributions from clothing, especially work wear for interviews, and food. Sankofa also accepts monetary donations. To learn more about the non-profit organization, visit the website, www.sankofaelu.com