Madison’s Mayor Trump: The Criminalization of homelessness

The Philosophers’ Stones are gone; as of October 1, the City-County Building will no longer be a place of sanctuary for homeless people. Mayor Soglin has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour. has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour.  has proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to stay on a public bench for longer than an hour. It seems that the Mayor is putting into action for Madison’s homeless population what Donald Trump is proposing for undocumented aliens–deporting them all. Certainly, he’s been successful in riling up passions (and eventually bringing other politicians into line with him–this was the third vote on the ban at the City-County Building).

But just like Trump’s ideas, criminalizing homelessness won’t work.. In the first place, there are serious constitutional questions about the Mayor’s proposed ordinance. And second, if there is no place for homeless people to sleep, then I suppose they’ll be arrested and jailed (where at least they’ll have a roof over their heads and meals.

The harsh reality is that we don’t have housing for all of the people who need. The vacancy rate in Madison hovers around 2%, and although I’ve heard rumors that there are signs that developers have nearly saturated the market for upscale student housing, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of interest in providing adequate, affordable housing in Madison or Dane County.

And then there’s this statistic from the Salvation Army today. They can accommodate at most 18-21 people in their emergency shelter. On August 31, 2015, 80 women and children sought shelter there.

We know what works. Housing First programs in places like Salt Lake City have successfully cut the numbers of chronic people at a significant cost savings. It’s estimated that on average, a homeless person costs taxpayers around $30,000/yr in services, especially emergency services (ER, police). Mayor Soglin likes to talk about Housing First, but he doesn’t actually want to commit city resources to providing housing for people on the scale necessary. Mayor, that’s sixty women and children who didn’t have a place to stay last night!

Where will Madison’s homeless go? I know the Mayor hopes they’ll all go back to where they came from. My guess is they’ll try to hide and eke out an existence where cops and politicians won’t see them. And if they do, the Mayor will have solved his problem. Out of sight, out of mind.

Madison’s debate about homelessness continues

You don’t have to go further than to see our dysfunction. Mayor Soglin is in the news again for wanting to bring in private security guards to monitor homeless people in the City County building. The article points out some of the problems caused by the regular presence of homeless people in and around the building, and also cites County executive Joe Parisi’s opposition to the proposal. The projected cost is $42,000, money that might be better spent on providing services to those who need them–like showers, rest rooms, and, perhaps even, some housing.

Also today, news finally broke that the County is hoping to purchase a facility on the east side for a permanent day center. I had a chance to tour the facility last month. It needs some renovations, especially additional bathrooms and showers, the location isn’t great, but it has great potential with ample space not only for a day resource center, but also for other agencies that work with homeless people. Unfortunately, the current owners won’t be vacating until spring, and the facility probably won’t open before summer. In the absence of such a facility this winter, homeless people are pretty much forced to seek shelter wherever they can, including the City-County Building.

We’ll see how the dynamics of these two stories play out.

Thank You, Mr. Mayor!

I’ll admit I’ve been critical of Mayor Soglin’s statements and policies regarding homelessness. At times, it has seemed that he has wanted to avoid the issue entirely or evade the city’s share of responsibility to address homelessness and the underlying issues that contribute to it. In recent weeks, however, he has seemed to have something of a change of heart.

The inclusion in the city’s capital budget of money towards the construction of up to 100 units of single room occupancy for homeless or recently homeless people is a very important step. With a rental occupancy rate of around 2%, there are simply not enough vacant units to house people in Madison and little incentive for landlords to rent to low-income people.

Even more encouraging is what happened yesterday. Mayor Soglin involved himself personally in the plight of a homeless family. After seeing them at a bus stop on his way to work, Mayor Soglin went to the office, turned around, and spent considerable time ferrying them to various agencies in an effort to find them housing. The article is here.

He learned first-hand about the limited services available and about how difficult it is to access those services. These are things those of us who work with homeless people know all too well. Indeed, the family Mayor Soglin worked with yesterday had stopped by Grace earlier in the week. He also probably experienced the frustration and anguish many of us do when our efforts to find housing or other help fail.

Of course, the city can’t solve the problem of homelessness by itself but it needs to engage constructively with the county, with social services, and with advocates to address both the lack of housing as well as the underlying reasons that contribute to homelessness.

I’m grateful to Mayor Soglin for his pledge to address these issues, and for taking the time to get to know and to try to help a homeless family yesterday.

The shelter system and the prison system

A really fine article by Pat Schneider on the direct line from the prison system to the homeless shelter.

Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison-area Urban Ministry, a nonprofit agency that assists criminal offenders returning to the community, estimates that 75 to 80 percent of people her agency assists in its offender “re-entry” programs are homeless. “The shelter system is the only option“ for many of them, she said.

I’ve blogged about this before here. I can confirm several points in the article. I know that guys come straight from the parole office to the shelter. I know that sex offenders that are released to their own communities come to Madison because there’s no place for them back home.
I remember several years ago a young man, a teenager, brought by corrections officials to the shelter from whatever prison he’d been in elsewhere in the state. His parents came down too. They wanted to know about the shelter, how he would fare, what would happen to him. For whatever reason, he wasn’t released to them. What I remember most about him was the look of fear on his face. Whatever he’d faced in prison was nothing like the uncertainty he was facing now. I have no idea what happened to him.
His reaction is quite common among those I’ve talked to who have just been released from prison. They’re facing incredible odds in their efforts to put their lives back together. In addition to all the social services they need, they also need a support system to help them, to encourage them, and to offer a helping hand when they make mistakes. Instead, they come to the shelter where they’re anonymous, where they’re surrounded by people who may or may not want to help them, and where access to the services they need is a maze in a city they probably don’t know.
The re-entry program run by MUM mentioned in the article does amazing things.

So, Mr. Mayor, where do you want homeless people to hang out?

An article in today’s Madison State Journal interviews Mayor Soglin, local business owners, and others about the “problem” of homeless people hanging out on State St. at Capitol Square. According to the mayor they are “nurtured by well-intended people with clothing, bedding and food, making the area even more of an attraction.” Well, we know who he’s talking about, don’t we?

And don’t get me wrong. I know how uncomfortable it can be to walk through that area. For all the hellos and kind words I receive from those I know, I’ve also had many unpleasant encounters.

But here’s the deal. Where are homeless people supposed to spend the day? The shelters close first thing in the morning and then they’re on their own. When a newly-homeless person comes to Grace, I direct them to the benches along Capitol Square, or to the Capitol, or yes, to “Philosopher’s Grove.” If they’ve missed the free van to Hospitality House, they’ve got no way to get to the only place that’s open for them during the week. Those benches and “Philosopher’s Grove” are very poorly suited as locations for the provision of services that might help the people there improve their situation.

In a few weeks, the renovated Central Library will again be an option. And no doubt the Library entrance will become what it was before the renovations, a place where homeless people hang out. On weekends, there’s nowhere to go and if the weather’s bad, and someone comes looking for shelter, I’m likely to invite them into Grace, at least for as long as we’re open. And I direct them to the various feeding programs where they might at least get something to eat before the shelter reopens in the evening.

The point is, in the absence of a central location like a day resource center, where people can find shelter and also get connected with services, most homeless people have little choice but to hang out on the streets in boredom with the only escape being alcohol or drugs. Until that happens, homeless people will hang out on State St. and Capitol Square. And if they’re forced out from these places, they’ll find somewhere else to gather.

A New Era? Changing attitudes and approaches to homelessness in Madison

There seems to be a revolution taking place in Madison and Dane County. Thanks to a number of factors and the efforts of a remarkable group of people, new initiatives are beginning and there is evidence of changing attitudes among our political leadership and wider community. I’m excited to be a witness and in a small way a participant in these changes.

One change, the Warming Center, which finally opened a couple of weeks ago on E. Washington Ave. The first day it opened, 57 people made use of it. It’s a temporary solution with a permanent facility funded by Dane County in the works. I received a plea from Scott McDonnell (chair of the County Board of Supervisors) in which he lists the shelter’s needs. You can download that letter here: McDonnell_letter.

Some of my excitement is due to the work of Tami Miller and her group “Feeding the State Street Family.” The Cap Times recently profiled Miller who began volunteering on her own a couple of years ago. Miller and her group reach out to homeless people where they are instead of expecting homeless people to seek them out. They provide meals, make midnight drop-offs of food and supplies. She is also experimenting with new programs, like a one-on-one mentoring program that may begin as early as January. She and I had a great conversation on Tuesday about how Grace can support her efforts. We also talked about some of the unmet needs in the city and the county.

One impact she and others have had is to shift the approach of the politicians. Mayor Soglin who has come off as very heavy-handed and tone deaf about homelessness over the last months, has been much more conciliatory in the last weeks. And County Executive Joe Parisi, who has made several mis-steps himself, is making similar efforts to reach out. Here’s an article about that.

The focus now from the City of Madison is on figuring out where the gaps in services are. It’s interesting that the 2011 annual report on homelessness in Dane County has finally appeared, just a few weeks before the end of 2012. That document is here: 2011 Annual Report revised

It makes for interesting reading. The statistics come primarily from social service agencies and shelters. It’s interesting to note that for all demographic groups, most people in the shelters were residents of Madison or Dane County before becoming homeless. What it doesn’t seem to track is the number of people who are homeless but don’t use the shelter system. Tami Miller puts that number at 400. On Monday, I talked to a couple of guys who are regulars at our First Monday meal. They sleep outside. One of them said he’ll go in the shelter when it’s really cold, another said he never uses the shelter. When I asked them about it, they brought up the usual issues and complaints I hear. The reality is that the shelter isn’t appropriate for everyone, and with shelter as with almost every other issue facing homeless people, it’s important to develop solutions based on the particular needs of individuals. Of course that takes more financial and human resources, but if the goal is to get someone into a stable living situation, those resources are necessary and produce results.

A video about the plight of homeless teens in Madison is here:

In short, these are interesting and exciting times and I look forward to future developments.

What is the mayor thinking? A free ride out of town for the homeless

Mayor Soglin has made the eye-popping suggestion to include $25,000 in the city budget to buy tickets to put homeless people on buses to their hometown. Former Mayor Dave Cieszlewicz calls him out on it here.

Soglin is convinced that Madison is a magnet for homeless people from across the country or at least across the state (or maybe Dane County).

Thinking dispassionately about the proposal and about what little Soglin has said about what he intends, raises at least several issues. First off, who would administer it and how? What would the administrative costs be? He proposes contacting relatives in the “hometown” before issuing tickets, and right there the complications would arise. There would have to be some sort of vetting process, some sort of communication between here and the proposed location, including social services, to make sure it was more than sending someone to the bus station in Chicago or Milwaukee.

If the mayor were serious about such a proposal, I would think it might require paying a professional social worker for at least a half-time job, given the numbers of homeless and the amount of necessary follow-up. And how much would a half-time salary cost? Way more than $25,000. Without that administrative structure, his program is nothing more than a free ride out of town.