Five years after the city of Madison purchased a blighted 11.4-acre site along a major thoroughfare on the East Side, its renewal is imminent.
Construction of a medical clinic at East Washington Avenue and Sixth Street on the so-called Union Corners property is expected to start next month. Residential and other commercial development is next.
For the people who in the meantime have turned the site into a kind of vehicle-based homeless encampment, the future is less certain.
The stretch of Winnebago Street between Sixth and Milwaukee streets has some things in common with the old Don Miller Auto site farther southwest on East Wash that is now home to newly built or emerging apartments, dining and retail aimed at Madison’s hipster class.
Both Union Corners and Don Miller sites were purchased by the city during former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s administration. Both were shopped around for the best development proposals. Both are getting public financing to realize those proposals. Both attracted the homeless.
The Occupy Madison encampment at the Don Miller site was eventually evicted by the city, with Mayor Paul Soglin and some nearby residents alleging it had become a crime and filth magnet.
The story of Union Corners has been quiet by comparison.
I live in the area and started noticing folks living out of their cars, minivans and RVs a couple of years ago. Sometimes there were seven or eight vehicles, sometimes 15 or 20.
“Mobile homeless” encampments are not new to Madison, although local homeless advocates say Union Corners is probably the biggest in existence now.
Police weren’t aware Monday of any serious criminal activity there, and Roy Jacobs, 60, told me that overall he feels safe living with his 55-year-old wife out of a conversion van parked on site.
There have been regular complaints about trash and abandoned vehicles, but the neighborhood association has proved accommodating, even hosting a volunteer clean-up of the area in April.
I had thought it was mostly adults living at Union Corners until I came across a woman sleeping in the front seat of her minivan with her toddler in her arms and the window rolled down. Turned out she had her three other small children with her, too. (My church put them up in a motel for a couple of nights.)
Then on Sunday, I met a 28-year-old woman who said she’d been living in her ramshackle RV with her two kids, ages 6 and 13, for about two months.
Contrary to the “drifter” conception of Madison’s homeless that Soglin has been advancing of late, all three of the families I spoke with at Union Corners were either Madison natives or had been longtime Madison residents.
That doesn’t mean there’s a plan for what to do with them and their fellow car-campers once the earth movers move in and they have to move out.
“Simply, they tend to find a new place to park and then we notice they have moved to that new location,” said city zoning administrator Matt Tucker.
Mobile and largely out of sight behind cracked windshields and rusted doors, these homeless are even easier to ignore than most.