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City-County Building homeless, State Journal photo

A homeless person with their belongings outside the City-County Building.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is introducing an ordinance that would limit use of public benches downtown to one hour and prohibit people from lying on benches, public sidewalks or right-of-ways for most of the day and night.

The ordinance proposal, which Soglin announced Thursday at a press conference, stems from frustration about what he calls a “no rules” approach in Madison toward the homeless. He has tried twice to ban homeless from sleeping outside the City County Building in the past year and in recent months has become increasingly vocal about behaviors he believes are increasing, including violence, drug use and sex.

“We’ve created a circus atmosphere where anything goes, and the refusal to adopt rules and controls on (the City County) Building as predicted spread to the other side of the Square,” Soglin said.

The proposed ordinance would apply to the Central Business District, which encompasses the Capitol Square and blocks on either side of State Street stretching to Park Street. In that area, it would limit use of public benches to one continuous hour between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 1:00 a.m. and would prohibit people from lying on any public bench or sitting, lying or lodging on any public sidewalk or public right-of-way during those same hours.

Additionally, from the hours of 5:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., people would be prohibited from sitting, lying or lodging on any parcel of land where city of Madison offices are located, a stipulation that applies to the City County Building. That piece allows exceptions for sitting on public benches, steps or walls, but not for a period longer than one hour.

Exceptions to the ordinance include people sitting near events like parades or festivals, people sitting or lying down due to a medical emergency, people who use a wheelchair or similar device and need longer periods of rest, people seated within sidewalk café areas, babies in strollers, a person in line for goods or services and an authorized person making maintenance or repairs on behalf of a governmental body or utility.

If people violate the ordinance, they can be ticketed for up to $200 for the first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses within the same year.

Though both Soglin and Police Chief Mike Koval said the city cannot arrest its way out of this problem, Soglin said it’s necessary to have some rules in place.

“Unfortunately, since the City Council has taken the approach of trying to arrest our way out of this, saying that the solution lies in ordinances and arresting people for violating the ordinances, that is the focus of our attention,” Soglin said.

Council President Denise DeMarb said she hasn’t had a chance to read through the ordinance in detail yet, but her initial reaction is that she’s thankful the mayor has come forward with something.

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“We’ve been asking him to provide leadership for a long time, so I thank him for that,” DeMarb said. “And the council will need to understand the impact of his proposal and weigh in on it.”

City Attorney Mike May said he expects there will be arguments against the ordinance, but it has been crafted carefully and was modeled on similar ordinances adopted in Portland, Oregon, and Honolulu.

Soglin said he hopes the ordinance will be passed by October, though DeMarb said she’d be surprised if it goes through that quickly.

“This is a big change,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of people who are going to want to understand it.”

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