We are Responsible for this Human Rights Crisis

November 10, 2012 By Heidi Wegleitner

This weekend un-housed people living in tents in my district are being evicted from the former Don Miller site, where for a couple of weeks they have been able to live in a community-like setting and have some self-determination in meeting their basic needs.

This No Trespassing sign has been posted at the current Occupy Madison location on the 800 block of E. Washington Avenue, directly east of last year’s encampment. On Thursday, Madison police informed campers that they must leave by 3pm Sunday or risk eviction and a Trespassing citation. Occupy Madison is meeting on Saturday at the site to discuss moving plans, as there is no legal place for these people to reside while they seek permanent housing solutions. Photo by Brenda Konkel

Should the Occupy site be across the street from our temporary day shelter? No, probably not, as that seemed to create problems for both Occupy and some other day shelter neighbors last year. They do, however, deserve an alternative place to go.

Many of them had previously been living in county campgrounds, but they were forced to leave when those closed on October 29. In July, the County Board received a report from Madison-Area Urban Ministry identifying possible alternative locations, but as of this date, not one of them has been made available. Ideally, since it is practically winter, we would have a building/structure where folks could insulate themselves from the harsh elements. Are there no vacant public buildings that can help shelter these people at night?

At a very minimum, they deserve a place–someplace– where their lack-of-housing status does not criminalize their existence and their ability to sleep, go to the bathroom, and build community.

I am grateful we are making progress to open a temporary day center and are pursuing a permanent day center for later in 2013. That, however, does not help those folks who are unable or unwilling to access nighttime shelter. Limits on shelter stays and negative shelter experiences are the main reason folks are camping. Men have 60 days in the shelter per year but unlimited space and exceptions for very cold weather. Women had 60 days in the shelter per year, but there is only room for 30 per night.

The women’s shelter is full almost every night and 6 – 12 women are turned away. Families have 90 days per year, but also a 180 day lifetime limit to stay in the shelter. So, unless we remove the limits and improve conditions at the shelter, there will be people who are street homeless and require a lawful, safe spot to sleep. This is especially important for the single women and youth, who are extremely vulnerable to rape and abuse when homeless.

Photo by Leslie Amsterdam

As you know, with an historically low vacancy rate in the private market and no-vacancy (and long waitlists) in low-income housing, it is next to impossible to house the homeless in our current system. The county board is pursuing significant funding to develop SRO housing, but that will not help folks this winter, and will not be enough to meet the need,that exists.

Please help secure a lawful site for these very vulnerable people to live. They are human beings and we, as public officials, are responsible for their safety. I am not interested in pointing the finger at some other government body or the private sector. For goodness sakes, private individuals, like Tami Miller, Brenda Konkel and Bruce Wallbaum, are already doing the heavy lifting in taking care of street-homeless people. It is our turn to work with these private partners and do what is in our power to improve the situation by designating a public space for them. We can’t keep evicting people without homes from public lands, pushing them further into isolation, danger, and despair.

The City of Madison and Dane County have made progress over the last year, recognizing housing as a human right and making commitments to pursue policies to implement that right, including ending the criminalization of homelessness. There are conservation lands that can accommodate camping and there are places, like Lyckburg Park, that have a shelter, electricity, and running water. And, there are other city-owned properties that are close to free meal sites and other services homeless folks depend upon.

Police arrest a homeless man on State St. Photo by Rebecca Kemble

This crisis presents a clear choice and a significant opportunity. We can–despite our commitments to decriminalize homelessness– continue to look the other way while the vulnerable people are ticketed, arrested, and shoved around town in our name. Or, we can be proactive and provide a space to help these folks take care of themselves.

I have been asked to present at two national conferences next year on the human right to housing and implementing it at the local level. I would love to report that our resolutions are more than just words on paper and have established a framework for being a national leader on innovative housing policy (creative community building and place-making for those who need it most) and decriminalizing homelessness.

I am asking you to commit to working collaboratively to secure another site or sites. I have bcc’d county supervisors and Madison alders on this. I hope to hear from you soon. Please reply to me individually. Thank you for your attention to this important issue.

[Heidi Wegleitner is a Dane County Supervisor for the Second District. This is her letter to Mayor Soglin and other city and county officials regarding the current issues faced by homeless citizens in Madison.

Register your concern about this issue by signing this petition to request Mayor Soglin and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi to follow the recommendations in the Madison-area Urban Ministry Committee report on Possible Alternative sites for Occupy Madison, fund the warming center and the permanent day center, and stop passing and enforcing ordinances that make it against the law to be homeless in the city. ]

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One Comment on “We are Responsible for this Human Rights Crisis”

  1. Thomas Ray Worley November 10, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    The Madison Urban Ministry committee recommendations of July 9,2012 are at:

    Click to access MUM%20report%20to%20the%20Dane%20County%20Board%20on%20Alternative%20Occupy%20Sites.doc%20%5BCompatibility%20Mode%5D.pdf

    (11 pages; the recommendations are on pages 5 through 8.)
    Lists possible Occupy sites on page 5, promising more details about those sites in an attachment, which is not included in the report, nor attached to it, nor linked to from it.
    The #1 long term recommendation is “create more low-income housing” (p. 6)–without specifying who will pay for it, nor who will qualify for it. So the recommendations are vague.

    Increased subsidized housing would attract more low-income residents (my view, not the committee’s), increasing fear of crime and consequent actual police brutality and harassment:
    as well as burdening Madison schools with more children unprepared to learn.

    Combating poverty means letting people earn. Local government should minimize any obstacles (such as permits and zoning) to self-employment. Providing earning opportunities to people should be a goal of local government personnel policy.

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