As Pat Schneider reports in the Cap Times cover story this week, homelessness in Madison is a long-term problem that continues to vex city leaders. One symptom of the issue was brought into sharp relief at a meeting of the Common Council on Tuesday night when Mayor Paul Soglin convened a discussion on safety issues on the 100 block of West Mifflin Street, where a large number of people, including many homeless, have been hanging out.
Captain Carl Gloede of the Madison Police Department said that in the past year the police have been called 430 times to address problems on the block, resulting in 213 arrests. He said there has been an increase in drug dealing in the area and recently a spate of assaults, including one stabbing. Police have responded, he said, with a greater presence in the area.
Several residents testified that the city must do something to move the population out of the area, either by more closely monitoring the block, more strictly enforcing loitering ordinances or providing more shelter.
"(P)eople are scared to death to go there," said Maria Milsted, who runs a property management company with her husband at 106 W. Mifflin St. "We are frightened to go into our own place of work."
In her speech, Milsted distinguished between the "good homeless," — those who are seeking jobs and a place to live — and "the takers" who she believes are seeking handouts and have no intention of behaving civilly. The group outside her office, she asserted, falls into the latter category.
The mayor himself attached much of the blame on other Wisconsin municipalities and the state of Wisconsin, particularly the prison system, which he says is releasing inmates directly to the streets with no means to find housing or employment. Specifically, he pointed out, Madison has more homeless sex offenders than any other city in the state, including Milwaukee.
"Statements that some of us have made about Madison being a drop-off point (of homeless people) for other units of government is now getting fairly well-documented," Soglin said.
He also alleged that other cities are driving homeless people into the city of Madison, and vowed that Madison would "drive them right back!"
Barbara McKinney, assistant director of the Madison Urban Ministry, which works to prepare prisoners for reentry into society, said the Department of Corrections' refusal to develop housing plans for inmates is endangering the Madison community. She talked in particular about a man released from prison who was able to find employment but still could not find housing, in part due to his lack of rental history.
"The Department of Corrections must be at the table and held accountable for releasing men with no resources at all," she said. "Public safety is at risk, successful reintegration is at risk."
So far, police and city officials have offered few concrete policy proposals to deal with the safety problems on West Mifflin Street. Some alders have suggested a full-time police or city staff presence in the area, similar to the Business Improvement District kiosk that was set up at Lisa Link Peace Park several years ago. Others suggested that some of the sculptures between the State Historical Museum and the Teddywedgers shop makes the sidewalk congested and uninviting to pedestrians, making it a prime hangout for the transient population.