Brenda Konkel, a vocal Madison advocate for the homeless, and her partner, Robert Bloch, are facing potential fines of up to $300 a day if they don’t stop allowing homeless people to sleep and store belongings in lockers on the porch of their North Hancock Street house.
After a complaint from a neighbor, the city of Madison’s Building and Zoning departments sent the couple notices of violation about the lockers, sleeping bags and other gear stored alongside the house, and people sleeping on the porch.
“The issue with the lockers is silly because all sorts of people store things on their property outside, and this is because the people who are storing the stuff don’t live here. But I don’t understand how this is a zoning violation,” said Konkel, a former Madison City Council member who works as executive director of the Tenant Resource Center.
People who are sleeping on the porch have nowhere else to go, she said.
“They have zoned homeless people out of everywhere. If they have no more days in shelter left or can’t get in that night, there’s no legal place to go,” said Konkel.
She worked with members of Occupy Madison a couple of years ago as they tried without success to get city approval to erect a homeless encampment and was instrumental in the group’s success in getting zoning approval for a village of “tiny houses” now under construction on the city’s east side.
Madison Zoning administrator Matt Tucker said that only people who are part of a dwelling unit – who have access to and share the interior for housekeeping services – can legally elect to sleep outside of a dwelling unit in the city. A few such cases, perhaps involving people living in RVs on someone’s property, come up each year, he said, and the zoning code is enforced.
Storage facilities on residential property have to be accessory to the principal use of the property and must be used by the occupants, otherwise someone could have a house and mini-warehouses on their residential lot, Tucker said.
A dozen recycled lockers ended up on the couple’s front porch about a year and a half ago, Konkel said. She and Bloch allow homeless people to store things there because the shortage of accessible, free storage space means that many homeless people have to carry their belongings around with them every day, she said.
“A lot of people walking around with backpacks get sore backs and injuries from carrying them,” she said. If they try to stash belongings like sleeping bags and extra clothes in unlocked places, they risk having items stolen or cleared out and thrown away by city workers.
The couple has already removed belongings from the side of the house and put all the things stored on the porch in containers of some sort, Konkel said.
There are not many storage options out there, she said.
A storage facility operated by St. Vincent DePaul near its food pantry off Fish Hatchery Road is accessible only twice a week, so it’s not practical for things that need to be used daily, Konkel said. And another homeless storage facility in the Social Justice Center on Williamson Street is closing on Oct. 15 because funding through the city is expiring, she said.
Anywhere from one to six people sleep on the couple’s front porch on any given night, Konkel said.
“Sometimes I don’t know how many,” she said.
That circumstance developed gradually, Bloch said, and initially was mostly females who needed a “safer place to stay than just out on the streets.” Now a variety of people may sleep on the porch for a night or two or sometimes longer, he said.
“There’s a 59-year-old gentleman who’s been there for a while, and a young kid who just got kicked out of his parents’ house,” Bloch said. “They can go to sleep and not worry that all their stuff will be gone when they wake up, or they’ll be forced to move by police, or that they’ll be hurt in some way.”
Bloch said the experience of having homeless people literally sleeping on his doorstep has opened his eyes.
“It comes from meeting people and knowing them by name and hearing their stories. You realize they are just people with very few options,” he said. “I also see the system is not working.”
Bloch said the people who stay on the porch usually are sleeping by 9 p.m. or 10 at the latest, and the sole police visit occurred when an ambulance was called to assist someone.
In an interview, Konkel became emotional while talking about the lack of alternative sleeping places “for people we’ve come to consider friends.”
Many of the people who end up on the porch have problems, but some of them have overcome them to improve their lives – in part because they got some place to sleep when they needed it, Konkel said.
“These are human beings,” she said. “If the city and the county aren’t doing this, why prevent us from doing it?”
The deadline on compliance with Building Department rules on the storage lockers was this week; the deadline on storage and sleeping issues from the Zoning Department is in mid-October.
Tucker said his department will work with the couple as much as is possible under the ordinance.
“We always work with people. This is a compliance-driven agency,” he said. “But we need to enforce the law.”