In a bitter cold snap, Madison’s largest homeless encampment is shrinking and the city has ordered the handful of campers who remain — as well as others who want to return when temperatures rise — to vacate McPike Park on the Near East Side by the end of the month.
At its peak, roughly 40 people were camping at the western end of the 9.2-acre park, tents of all color, shape and size dotting the grounds 10 blocks from the state Capitol.
Now, the camp is mostly abandoned, with footpaths through the snow leading to some tents and large makeshift shelters, but other spots vacated and covered in snow, a mix of collapsed tents, grills, burn barrels and wooden pallets nearby. A large pile of firewood stands next to a pile of discarded clothing stuck in the snow next to the park’s restrooms.
An aggressive outreach effort has helped the people who had been camping at the site find shelter in the frigid weather, officials said.
They have moved to hotels, the city’s temporary men’s shelter at its former Fleet Services Building on the East Side, the Salvation Army’s women’s shelter on the Near East Side, and a new “tiny hut” village on the East Side, officials said. Some are also sheltering for the short term with friends or family until the weather improves.
The forecast calls for bitter cold temperatures below zero degrees every night through the weekend.
“I am definitely worried about the health and safety of campers and car campers,” said Ald. Marsha Rummel, 6th District, which includes McPike Park. “I believe there are places in both the men’s and women’s shelters and that (the advocacy group) Friends of the State Street Family may be able to help with funds for hotels for couples who may not wish to separate.”
So far, about 80 people have been placed in “excessive cold” hotel rooms, using money provided by Dane County, and as many as 20 more through private donations, city community development director Jim O’Keefe said. Those rooms are expected to be available until at least Monday, depending on weather conditions, he said.
At the start of the week, another 165 people who are over 60 and have pre-existing conditions and are considered vulnerable due to COVID-19 were being sheltered in hotels, where they have been staying for months, O’Keefe said. Up to 125 men are staying nightly at the former Fleet Services Building, 200 N. First St. An additional 105 people in families are using 40 hotel rooms, and 50 to 60 women are using the Salvation Army shelter, 620 E. Washington Ave. Seven people are using a COVID-19 respite center, he said.
Twenty-eight people plus a few friends, including 11 from McPike Park, are staying at Occupy Madison’s new tiny hut village at the former Wiggie’s bar property at 1901 Aberg Ave., Occupy co-president Brenda Konkel said. Another 10 people are staying at Occupy’s original tiny house village at 304 N. 3rd St., she said.
A small number of people are still staying outside in tents, cars or the street, where they are frequently monitored, according to the city and county. About 125 people are using The Beacon day resource center, 615 E. Washington Ave., each day during the cold weather stretch, O’Keefe said.
“Some are doing well while others are suffering from frostbite and hypothermia when they reach out for help,” said Ben Jackson, an outreach worker for nonprofit Porchlight Inc. “Outreach workers have been doing everything we can to get them to the shelter or into hotels using donations and other funding sources to pay for their stays.
“My greatest concern is what will happen next Monday when those people housed in hotels temporarily during this cold snap are told they are going back to the street,” he said.
Neighbors help out
The city has designated the Starkweather Creek conservation area and Reindahl Park as places for temporary camping during the pandemic, but homeless people flocked to McPike Park because of its proximity to Downtown, The Beacon, bus routes and nearby food offerings, officials said.
“Nearby neighbors have been generally supportive of the encampment, but as time went by and winter commenced, they were bothered by smoke from burning wood and other materials,” Rummel said. “They were frustrated by the lack of response from the city to their inquiries and they asked whether an exit plan was being put in place.
“(But) on a broader level, many neighbors brought food, clothing and other supplies to McPike Park and the Social Justice Center, and donated money to homeless outreach service providers,” she said.
In the past month, the city created a McPike Park Response Team with a goal of helping people camping there connect to safe shelter or housing as soon as possible.
The team includes staff from the city’s Community Development, Parks and Streets divisions, the Police and Fire departments, homeless street outreach partners and Rummel. It has held weekly meetings and worked to find solutions for each camper, Rummel said.
Groups step up
Outreach partners, including MachOne Health, Sankofa Behavioral Health, the Social Justice Center, First United Methodist Church and volunteers from Friends of State Street Family and Catalyst for Change, have also been working with campers to connect them to shelter, housing and other resources, she and others said.
The city has now informed campers and posted notices at the permanent restroom facility and on light poles on the western side of the park that it must be vacated by Feb. 28.
“I understand why the city is doing it,” said Michael Moody, co-founder with fellow Beacon worker John Adams of Catalyst for Change. “(But) there is frustration about having to move. We have to get them out of that spot and into a better place.”
The notice should give campers enough time to connect with outreach workers and find other shelter, O’Keefe said.
“The goal is to connect people to safe indoor shelter and housing, not to disperse them to other unsheltered locations or to ticket individuals,” Rummel said. “The police and park rangers don’t want to be in the position of enforcement. If people have not moved until the last day, outreach partners will inform campers of temporary permissible encampment sites and provide follow-up services. The McPike team will develop an end date plan for people who may refuse to leave.
“On a mild weather week, the city will provide a dumpster and organize a cleanup,” she said. “If it’s not doable because everything is frozen, subsequent cleanup efforts will be necessary in the spring when the snow melts. Neighbors and allies will be invited to help as needed.”
PHOTOS: TINY HOUSE VILLAGE