Two things have become apparent since Madison and Dane County officials — led by Mayor Paul Soglin — have decided that the homeless living outside the City-County Building need to go (and quick) and that a broader crackdown on the Downtown’s homeless is necessary.
One is that someone high up must have sent a memo to Downtown stakeholders urging them not to equate drunkenness, drug use, public urination, fights and other bad behavior with homelessness.
Two is that neither bad behavior nor homelessness appears to be hurting the Downtown.
Since he was re-elected in April, Soglin (perhaps not coincidentally) has been coming up with all kinds of dramatic ways to describe the damage the homeless are doing.
“We have a dangerous situation,” he said in April. “What am I going to do when some child playing on the Square or State Street picks up a needle and is infected?”
“We’re losing the city,” he said in June, and the city is on a “death trip” and has a “reputation for being very accommodating and that there are no rules.”
It was a bit of a surprise, then, on a recent Friday night when my wife and I and another couple went out to dinner on the Square and then walked down State Street to the Memorial Union and weren’t accosted by a single homeless person asking us for money, staggering drunkenly or dropping dirty needles in our path.
In fact, the sidewalks were filled with what appeared to be lots of non-homeless people, and restaurants and shops looked to be doing a brisk business.
“Behavioral issues Downtown are really no different than behavioral issues in other parts of the city,” Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. president Jeff Vercauteren told me.
“Overall, the downtown is a safe place to live, work and visit,” he said, “and the already excellent quality of life Downtown continues to improve with the addition of new apartments, restaurants and other amenities.”
Similarly, Mary Carbine, executive director of Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, said there’s been a lot of energy Downtown over the last two to three years, especially with entertainment venues and farm-to-table dining options.
She noted all the new apartments going up and said the area is “in that period of the new residents really coming online.”
That doesn’t mean the area is free of problems. This year, police have recorded 766 calls for service at the CCB though Aug. 16 and 169 in the Philosopher’s Grove area near the top of State Street through Aug. 9.
Of course, not all of them were related to the homeless, said Central District Capt. Carl Gloede, and over the last three or four years, the total amount of contact the police have had with the homeless hasn’t really changed.
Instead, he said, there have been a number of related and unrelated forces at work that have caused the homeless to show up in new places and in front of new faces. He pointed to the Capitol protests in 2011, the Occupy Madison movement, limiting access to the Capitol cafeteria, the temporary closing of the Central Library, two really cold winters and two winters with temporary day shelters for the homeless.
“It’s all perspective,” he said. “There will always be the homeless transients and people who are struggling.”
Asked if some of the bad behavior Soglin has lamented Downtown is hurting business and scaring away visitors, Carbine said any bad behavior is “not something that folks report in to me. It’s not quantifiable.”
“It is important to distinguish the issue of unacceptable public behavior and the issue of homelessness,” Vercauteren said when I asked him whether the homeless were lowering the quality of life for Downtown residents.
“The issue that has played out at the top of State Street over the past few years is about unacceptable public behavior, not about homelessness,” he said. “Therefore, as we as a Downtown neighborhood association and we as a city work to address these separate issues, it is important to keep that distinction in mind.”
Except that, for practical purposes, it’s often a distinction without a difference. After all, you can’t issue a ticket to a behavior — say, sitting on a public bench for more than an hour straight, which is among the behaviors Soglin’s Downtown Pedestrian Protection Ordinance would address.
You can issue a ticket to a person, though, and if that person is homeless, the chances are pretty good the ticket won’t get paid and the person will just get in even more trouble he’s unlikely to have the money or wherewithal to get out of.
On the up side, if recent history is any indication, that’s not likely to hurt the Downtown.