Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Madison to let homeless camp in certain parks and greenways during COVID-19 pandemic

Madison to let homeless camp in certain parks and greenways during COVID-19 pandemic

Homeless in parks

Homeless for months after contending with a debilitating health condition, Victor Jamrock, 53, has been spending his nights along State Street. From his perch in Lisa Link Peace Park on Thursday, the former industrial mechanic said he will be looking for a new place to stay overnight after he was asked to leave earlier in the day. Madison is now allowing homeless people to camp in certain parks, though not likely Lisa Link.

To help protect homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Madison is now allowing people to camp in some parts of city parks, greenways and properties within certain limits.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway on Thursday signed an emergency order under which the city may designate locations in city parks and greenways where “temporary permissible encampments” won’t be disturbed, provided guidelines are followed. The move is largely to let homeless individuals camping outside stay where there are, not encourage new encampments.

Based on previous counts, an estimated 150 to 200 homeless people in the Madison area aren’t in shelters but sleep in cars, under bridges, on sidewalks and in doorways, and in tents in warmer months, city officials say.

The city and others have taken multiple steps to aid the homeless during the pandemic, including moving those who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 or exhibit symptoms to hospitals or hotels, and moving older adults and those with underlying medical conditions to hotels. Single women and families can use the Salvation Army of Dane County’s shelter on the 600 block of East Washington Avenue, and the city and partners have opened a shelter for homeless men at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center on the North Side.

About 375 people, including 57 families, are being accommodated in seven area hotels, said Jim O’Keefe, city community development director. Another 40 to 45 single women are staying at the Salvation Army, and 80 to 100 men are sleeping at the Warner Park facility each night, he said.

“We have made great strides in providing safer venues for persons in our community experiencing homelessness, and I strongly encourage those needing safe shelter to take advantage of them,” Rhodes-Conway said. “However, in instances where people need or choose to seek refuge in unsheltered settings, like city parks, sometimes contrary to local ordinances, public health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control warn that disrupting such arrangements risks the spread of the coronavirus.”

The CDC has advised against disrupting such encampments because people may disperse throughout the community, break connections with service providers, and increase the risk for transmitting the virus. Instead, the CDC recommends local governments try to support encampments and connect them to services.

“The steps I am taking heed this advice with respect to people camping on city property,” Rhodes-Conway said. “The city is placing a premium on the health and well-being of campers, and the public at large, in permitting and promoting safer conditions during this pandemic.”

Homeless in parks

Kaylee Omundson walks her 8-week-old Newfoundland puppy, Mika, through Lisa Link Peace Park as members of the city's homeless population share the space on Thursday. The mayor's new policy to let homeless people camp in some city parks isn't intended to promote encampments but allow existing encampments at some larger parks to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city is not waiving ordinances or granting people the right to camp on private property without the owner’s consent, or on city property, in ways that are inconsistent with policy guidelines, the statement says.

“We’re not looking to promote camping,” O’Keefe said. “We’re acknowledging some of this exists, and we want to make it as safe as possible.”

Specific rules

The operations section chief of the city’s Emergency Operations Center may designate locations in city parks and greenways where encampments won’t be disturbed.

Encampments must be:

  • At least 500 feet from any residential property; not in a flood plain or other low-lying area susceptible to flooding or unsafe location; and accessible by public property or right of way.
  • Accessible for delivery, servicing and removal of portable toilets, hand washing stations, and trash containers
  • Big enough to let users practice social distancing; not interfere with intended public use or prevent city staff from doing normal maintenance or upkeep; and not be in an environmentally sensitive area.
  • “People using public parks or greenways for shelter, particularly in the summer, is not a new phenomenon,” O’Keefe said. “It’s happening a bit more frequently under the current circumstances. Some people are reluctant to use the shelters for fear they would be at greater exposure to the new coronavirus. The first preference is to take advantage of shelter facilities. We understand that some people will choose not to do that.”

Matt Julian, a social worker for UnityPoint Health–Meriter, said some people who choose to camp outside may be safer than seeking shelter because they are already engaging in social distancing.

“By allowing encampments, it makes it easier for us outreach workers to locate, engage, and educate on COVID-19-related issues without the person having the fear that we are an agency coming to remove them,” he said.

Where feasible, the city may support encampments with temporary services such as portable toilets and handwashing stations; trash containers and collection; and regular visits by outreach workers to facilitate referrals to housing or shelter, wellness checks, and provide COVID-19 educational materials, basic supplies and hygiene kits.

The city won’t allow encampments that don’t substantially comply with guidelines and may help people find alternative sites if the ones they’re using are inappropriate.

Users are subject to the Madison Parks behavioral policy, and violators may be prohibited from using encampments. The mayor may revoke an encampment designation if public health determines a COVID-19 public health emergency no longer exists or for other reasons.

“The expectation is that users will be responsible and safe,” O’Keefe said. “When that’s not the case, I expect we’ll take action to address the situation.”

Questions raised

The emergency order is already facing some pushback.

Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, said he’s concerned the order is too open-ended and may attract homeless people to Madison and make them reluctant to leave encampments when the emergency is over. He asked city Parks Superintendent Eric Knepp to place the matter on the next Park Commission agenda.

“At the very least, I would like to insist that any camping in a city park would be reviewed and approved by the parks superintendent,” he wrote to Knepp.

O’Keefe said the policy “isn’t meant to be an open invitation to use city parks and greenways” and predicted there would be no substantial increase in the number of people camping in such areas.

The mayor signed the emergency order Wednesday and provided details of the resolution and plan on Thursday. The City Council will consider a resolution on May 19.

The idea is to let homeless individuals camping outside stay where there are, not encourage new encampments.

The idea is to let homeless individuals camping outside stay where there are, not encourage new encampments.


Concerned about COVID-19?

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Badger Sports

Breaking News