Published in The Cap Times, September 4th, 2013
When dusk falls, Phalen Pierson, 53, puts down a couple of layers of cardboard with a thin foam pad in between and settles in to spend the night on the steps of Madison’s City-County Building.
Many nights, Pierson is joined by anywhere from six to a dozen other homeless people. An equal number may be sleeping on the steps of the Madison Municipal Building or on nearby benches, steps away from downtown Madison landmarks like the Monona Terrace Convention Center.
Like other people who sleep on Madison streets, Pierson says having a regular place to put down his bedroll, with familiar people nearby, makes him feel safer.
"It’s secure here," Pierson says over pulsating music emanating from Monona Terrace’s rooftop dance party on a recent warm Friday night. "Everyone has his spot."
When the steps are crowded, it makes for a startling scene, one that nine-to-five downtown workers rarely encounter.
"We’re usually up and out of the way by 6 a.m., 6:15," Pierson says. "By that time, people start coming in to work. They don’t want to see homeless people out here."
It’s hard to imagine how anyone walking around downtown Madison at night couldn’t notice an alarming number of people sleeping on the street. In small groups or alone, occupying doorways and benches around the Capitol Square and along nearby streets, the homeless population is a source of much discussion between downtown business owners, police officers and public officials who literally step over them as they make their way out of government buildings after evening meetings.
Ald. Ledell Zellers has lived downtown since 2001 and says that these days she can count as many as 50 people sleeping on the street as she travels between late-running meetings at the City-County Building and her Carroll Street house.
"We need to figure out something to help more people get a grasp on things," she says.
Ald. Mike Verveer, who has represented his downtown district for 18 years, says homeless people are more visible than ever, in his memory.
"It’s tragic," Verveer says. "When I come out of a meeting, I literally have to climb over people sleeping outside the front doors of those two government buildings."
Downtown hotel guests and visitors to Monona Terrace can’t help but see them as they venture out into the city, he says.
"Convention-goers with their name badges on are walking past this huge concentration of homeless people," he says. "It really is a very shameful portrayal of our community."
It’s not just in Madison that tourists and business travelers are confronted with such powerful evidence of a failed social safety net, says Mayor Paul Soglin.
"It’s a universal problem," Soglin says in a phone interview last week. "You see it in Los Angeles, you see it in Milwaukee. We saw it on a trip to Chicago yesterday."
You can hear the frustration in Soglin’s voice when he says that the city does not have the resources to resolve a social issue that should not be laid at its doorstep. He has made this point repeatedly over the last few years as newly organized homeless services advocates demand solutions from him and other local officials.
"I’m flattered that people as usual think that their city government, the most responsive and accessible unit of government, is expected to solve the problem," he says icily. "But certain problems, because of cost and mobility issues, cannot be solved at the local level."
Advocates for the homeless should instead direct their complaints to Gov. Scott Walker and Republican members of Congress, Soglin says.
"We’re watching at the state and federal level the wholesale breakdown of support systems," he says.
Verveer, however, says that he and other City Council members feel "we can and should do more to assist homeless people."
One possible source of funds in tight budget times, Verveer says, is a $200,000 windfall that comes in the form of early repayment of a community development loan. The city is now accepting proposals for Emerging Opportunities Program grants drawn from this sum.
Steve Schooler, executive director of Porchlight Inc., the largest provider of homeless services in the city, says his nonprofit agency is considering applying for funds from the grant program to hire staff to work with homeless people at the remodeled Central Library after it reopens this month.
Competition for the grants is likely to be stiff. A dozen service providers have also applied for grants since the City Council approved the program in July.
Getting an accurate count of Madison’s homeless population is difficult, say service providers and public officials. A newly released report by the city of Madison says that 3,382 individuals spent at least one night in a shelter in 2012, up nearly 10 percent from the year before.
But not all homeless people use shelters regularly and many don’t use them at all. Fewer use shelters in summer when the weather is warm. Periodic "point in time" counts of people who are not in shelters at night are another indicator of how many people are sleeping on the street. That count in July found 156 unsheltered individuals, compared to 119 last year.
In addition, homeless services providers and homeless people themselves say their heightened profile in certain areas of downtown is due to a migration away from a traditional gathering place at the top of State Street.
A scary spate of nuisance behavior, as well as fights and violent attacks among people hanging out in the crossroads of State Street and the Capitol Square has alarmed both nearby business owners and homeless people who once frequented the area and often slept there. Several homeless people who usually camp out together say they avoid the top of State Street these days.
"It’s not fun to go to State Street anymore," says Heather Welch while playing cards at the Homeless Support Center at Bethel Lutheran Church. "Now there is so much drama and so much gang activity that I’m afraid to go there, especially after dark."
Welch and some friends have found a new place to sleep downtown, which they won’t disclose, where they say they enjoy relative quiet and privacy.
Downtown Madison, Inc. is working with the police department to clear out illegal behavior like drug-dealing and assaults and to attract a variety of visitors to the area, which has seating and a small performance stage, says DMI president Susan Schmitz.
Many of the people involved in criminal activity there are not believed to be homeless, Schmitz stresses. Verveer, however, wonders if the surge in belligerent behavior in an area known to be used by the homeless might strain the empathy from people who assume drugs and violence are common among the homeless community.
Beyond beefed-up police presence and enforcement, plans now being drafted call for lighting and other physical improvements, more scheduled events and clean-up rules for volunteer groups that feed the homeless there, Schmitz says.
Meanwhile, the Madison Police Department hasn’t been very forthcoming about its strategy to address concerns about the top of State Street.
"The MPD has seen the proposals made by DMI and others but has yet to form an official opinion on what will work best at this time," says Capt. Carl Gloede in a brief email response to an interview request.
Soglin was scheduled to brief the City Council about a strategy to address downtown safety at Tuesday night’s meeting, and he told the Wisconsin State Journal that some particular recommendations would be out by the end of this week.
An even more significant change felt around homelessness than where people are sleeping downtown is the evolving political climate around the issue.
Occupy Madison, a chapter of the 2011 national economic justice movement, has morphed into a homelessness encampment and advocacy movement. Also, organized advocacy efforts by homeless people themselves and their allies have driven more attention to the issue, say some local officials. Both Soglin and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi have been the target of sharp, personal criticism on their commitment to homeless issues.
"I don’t think there would have been a successful day shelter if not for homeless advocates," Verveer says of an East Washington Avenue center run by the county in a leased space last winter. "People with political experience have provided expertise to members of the homeless population to give them guidance on how to make a difference."
The activism of homeless people has made a big difference, agrees Dane County Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, who has successfully pushed to fund day shelters and form a Homeless Issues Committee with county and city officials and homeless people among its members.
In making their funding decisions, members of the County Board "heard personal stories of life on the street from the people who live it," Wegleitner says. "That’s really powerful."
Officials who are trying to respond to the needs of the homeless sometimes feel that activists come down too hard on them.
"But people are still living on the street and sometimes people get frustrated with elected officials," Wegleitner says.
Meanwhile, Homeless Issues Committee member Ronnie Barbett remains frustrated with the whole process. When he was appointed to the committee in January, he says he was excited about taking on basic needs issues: Access to shelters, storage lockers and showers.
Months later, "Nothin’s been done," says Barbett, who is himself homeless.
And although the county allocated $600,000 to purchase a building to house a permanent day center, the Nov. 1 deadline by which the center should be operational is fast approaching and no site has yet been identified.
Barbett suspects progress is slow because officials don’t really want to build resources for the homeless.
"They’re all against it," he says. "Homeless people are an undesirable element of the city. They don’t want to give you anything for free."
Often residents are even more hostile to the siting of shelters and other resources for the homeless, he says.
"If the neighborhood association knows what’s going on, how is a homeless person ever going to get into a neighborhood?" Barbett wonders.
During a recent Friday night concert on the Monona Terrace rooftop, three men who often sleep in the doorways of the nearby Madison Municipal Building share their ideas on how homelessness issues should be addressed.
The county should use the money it has budgeted for a day center to distribute housing vouchers to individuals, says a man who gives his name only as Russ. "They should spread it around," he says. "I don’t need them telling me where to live."
Russ, like some other homeless people interviewed for this article, is sharply critical of local officials.
They don’t have a sense of the reality we live with, he says. They can’t see beyond their own egos.
Yet he and his buddies echo a concern that Soglin has often expressed, that the services available here draw homeless people to downtown Madison from around the state and beyond.
But he also offers a perspective difficult for those who aren’t homeless to understand. The very term "homeless," he says "is a stereotype equal to racial slurs. Once you throw that out on someone, they can’t wash it off."￼
Written by Pat Schneider, in the Cap Times. "What's being done to address homelessness in Madison?"
Photo Credit: Mike DeVries, The Cap Times.