Concerned about public health and safety, Mayor Paul Soglin is taking actions to deal with drifters and homeless people engaging in dangerous behavior Downtown and in other parts of the city.
The actions would include ending all outdoor living and encampments except at the City-County Building, and seeking to limit free food distribution to the City-County Building.
In the past two weeks there has been a serious increase in the number of drifters Downtown, with more people coming to the front entrance of the City-County Building, and new encampments in other places, including one at Frances Street between State and Langdon streets, Soglin said in a memo Friday to City Council members and department mangers.
The Frances Street situation rapidly deteriorated last week, the memo says.
On April 18, individuals clearly under the influence of drugs were occupying the benches near Urban Outfitters and the steps of Frances Street, the memo says. On Tuesday, more than six hypodermic needles were found in the grassy area alongside The Towers. On Wednesday the area was littered with food and other debris. On several occasions clothing was littering the area, including feces-laden pants.
At 3 a.m. Friday, city park crews went into the area and power-washed the block, the memo says. The improvement was significant but won’t keep the area safe and healthy if the behavior reoccurs, it says. Those in the area were told of the cleaning in advance and found other locations to bed down on Thursday night, it says.
“We have a dangerous situation,” Soglin said in an interview. “What am I going to do when some child playing on the Square or State Street picks up a needle and is infected? This is about health, safety and crime.”
Actions to be taken include:
Stopping all illegal outdoor living and encampments. Individuals who wish to live outdoors will be given an opportunity to go the City-County Building or shelters.
Madison police will contact shelters to make sure there is available space as they force drifters out of unsanitary public spaces.
The city will ask that all services that provide free food only do so at the City-County building. If that’s not heeded, Soglin will request an ordinance to give the city greater control. The city won’t ban free food, but will control where it’s distributed for health and sanitary reasons.
Requesting the city attorney to research legislation to designate all of State Street and the Capital Square a public park to give greater control of behavior.
Requesting an ordinance that limits occupation of public benches to one hour so benches can be shared and used by everyone.
The health department will patrol the area and assist in citing those who are drug users endangering others.
“In the coming weeks I am going to use all of the administrative solutions available to me to force the dangerous behavior to stop,” the memo said.
“I know that in defense of the homeless, some will consider these measures draconian, but enough is enough,” Soglin said in the two-page memo. “The combination of City and County policies that encourage drifters to come to Madison, and the concerted efforts of others to send them here has reached an intolerable level.”
Soglin acknowledged that the actions will concentrate issues at the City-County Building.
“It will make the challenges of doing business at the City-County Building as citizens and employees more difficult,” he said in the interview.
Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents the State Street area, said he gives the mayor credit for addressing the “shocking” number of people sleeping near Frances and State streets but said some of his actions will cause “concern and red flags, to say the least.”
Verveer specifically identified limiting time on public benches and handing out free food — illegal unless you have proper permits — as controversial.
Soglin plans to meet with homeless service providers Tuesday, Verveer said.
In addition to the City-County Building and Frances Street, encampments exist at Union Corners, along the Yahara River at Burr Jones Field, alongside Madison Gas & Electric property by East Wilson Street, as well as sporadically near Monona Terrace, Soglin’s memo says.
They all present continual health threats because of the lack of proper sanitation practices and intravenous drug use, it says.
This is not a homeless issue, the memo says. If there were a day shelter and enough housing, these activities would continue. There were several active placements of chronically homeless that failed, it says.
“Let me simply say that available housing is being refused and in several instances homeless individuals have sabotaged their placement,” the memo says. “Several individuals, feeling coerced, accepted housing placements only to act in such a manner as to leave management no alternative than to throw them out.”
Former Ald. and homeless advocate Brenda Konkel said the mayor’s message was “disappointing” and “disturbing” in the way he characterized the issue.
“If this is a public health and safety issue, we need to provide a place for these people to be,” Konkel said. “We’re not providing people living on the streets with the things they need.”
“We need to stop blaming each other and step up as a community and solve this problem,” she added.
Downtown Madison belongs to all the people of Madison and its visitors and it represents hundreds of millions in public investment not to mention the private commitments, the memo says.
In his memo, the mayor said his efforts to control behaviors at the City-County Building have been thwarted by the county, which owns the building, and the City Council.
“We are losing control of our city because of the overly indulgent behaviors tolerated at the City-County Building,” the memo says. “Because of those behaviors, the situation is spreading to a wider area. While I have little influence on those who manage and control the City-County Building I will not abdicate my responsibility and will use the resources available to the city of Madison to bring safety and sanity back to our Downtown.”
State Journal reporter Abigail Becker contributed to this report.