On Monday, the City-County Homeless Issues Committee heard a presentation on a report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty during its first meeting of the new year.
The presentation looked at the Center’s Housing, Not Handcuffs report, which looks at how cities around the country treat acts such as sleeping or sitting down in public places as criminal offenses.
According to the report, Madison doesn’t have ordinances prohibiting sleeping or camping in public on a city-wide basis. But, Madison does officially ban these acts in particular public places, and it prohibits begging in public places throughout the city.
So, where does Madison rank nationwide? Dane County Supervisor and City-County Homeless Issues Committee member Heidi Wegleitner explains.
“[The Center] had checked a few of the boxes and found that Madison wasn’t the worst, but [it] wasn’t the best,” Wegleitner says.
Madison’s ordinances don’t appear on the report’s section on policies that are particularly harmful to those experiencing homelessness, but Brenda Konkel, who runs the Forward Lookout blog, says her experiences with Occupy Madison last decade suggest a different “reality.”
“Once the City kicked us off of the 800 block of East Washington [where Occupy Madison was camped] the first time, we started looking for a new place to go, and every time we’d think of something, we’d find out it was illegal,” says Konkel.
“There was [always] some sort of obstacle. It could be zoning, it could be an ordinance, [or] it could just be rules about [staying in] the park. It was just like everything that we thought of, like, ‘Oh, people could sleep here, people could sleep there,’ everything was illegal.”
Konkel also says she appreciates the work the Center did in preparing its report, but that she’ll be contacting Eric Tars, the Center’s Legal Director, to discuss how to make sure they can capture everything going on at a local level that can’t be found in an ordinance.
As Konkel notes, that would mean going beyond looking specifically for words like “loitering” or “panhandling,” and considering ordinances that still effectively address those issues.
During its meeting, the committee also considered preliminary recommendations to address homelessness.
Wegleitner says that might include some short-term, “common sense” solutions.
“There’s so much potentially to do, but some of it feels like it’s really basic common sense [and they] should be non-controversial things, like something as simple as bringing some chairs or benches back into the City-County building and the municipal building. Those were removed several years ago under the prior administration, I believe, and have never been returned,” says Wegleitner.
Wegleitner also says she wants the committee to examine “hostile architecture” on public buildings — like an armrest on a public bench that prevents laying down. Weigleitner says she would also support an ordinance prohibiting public funding for this kind of architecture.
Kathy Kamp, who is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development, also serves on the City-County Homeless Issues Committee.
She says the report made both ethical and economic sense to her.
“The big ‘a-ha’ for me walking away from it was that clearly between providing shelter services, providing emergency health care services, providing police presence that’s necessary in some situations, that it’s expensive as a society for us to maintain people who are homeless,” Kamp says.
“In fact, it’s more expensive to do that than it is really to pay rent on an apartment for them. So, to me, the Housing, Not Handcuffs [report] is really true from both an economic perspective and just a moral and social perspective.”
Kamp says one step for the committee moving forward would be looking at the cost of “criminalizing” homelessness in Madison.
Wegleitner and Konkel say the City-County Committee on Homeless Issues are looking at holding a joint meeting with the City’s Public Safety Review Committee, which Konkel chairs, about the City’s ordinances. At that meeting, both committees would review ordinances they might amend or repeal entirely.