Last May, the city allowed the unhoused in Madison to set up so-called “temporary permissible encampments” in parks and other outdoor public spaces in Madison—without fear of arrest. The decision came as indoor shelters operating under a reduced capacity suddenly increased the number of people out on the streets.
Now that COVID cases are on the decline, however, the city has reverted back to its previous policy of criminalizing camping outdoors, with the exception of Reindahl and Starkweather Parks.
Tomorrow, the Madison Common Council will again consider what to do with the estimated few dozen unhoused residents remaining at Reindahl Park.
A new resolution is being driven by East-side alder Gary Halverson. It would direct city staff to enforce ordinances banning overnight encampment and restore the park to “its proper condition.”
Halverson, who did not return WORT’s request for comment before airtime, told the Wisconsin State Journal that he is concerned that incidents of harassment and violence have made the park unsafe for both visitors and residents. NBC15 reports that there were twenty 911 calls about the Reindahl encampment between January 2020 and May 2021.
Reindahl has been in a state of limbo for several months. In May, the city returned to ordinances banning camping in public areas. But city officials did not enforce the ban in Reindahl and did not clear away items stored there.
Unhoused advocates maintain that since the city’s only permissible encampment at Starkweather Park is infested with ticks and mosquitos and is inaccessible to vehicles, there’s no legal, viable alternative for unhoused people.
She said that evicting the residents at Reindahl Park will cause more harm than good for the community.
“When a lot of chaos happens, that’s when a lot of issues happen,” Konkel said. The encampment has settled down. People know each other now and they know how to handle the kind of issues that come up. Disrupting all of that and making them start over again would lead to more safety issues in the short-term, is really unnecessary and causes a lot more trauma and concern for everybody that lives there.”
The resolution also includes a directive for city officials to set up restroom and handwashing facilities through late October. But without having viable long-term living solutions for the residents of Reindahl park, Konkel said that this won’t do enough to help them.
Konkel pointed to root causes of homelessness in the city, such as the lack of affordable housing and landlords that are selective about their tenants. She said that the city needs to look for many possible solutions.
Among these could be a permanent, city-sanctioned encampment, since not all unhoused people are comfortable living in shelters for various reasons.
“I do think we need a city-sanctioned encampment because it’s literally illegal to exist outside unless you’re in a shelter,” Konkel said.
Most importantly, Konkel said that Madison officials need to speak to the people they are representing in their decision making.
“One of the biggest irritations that [unhoused residents of Reindahl park] have with the city at this point is that the city doesn’t directly communicate with the people who are living there. I really think that’s something we owe to the campers out there, to have the people who are making decisions come to the people who are living there. Let them have a conversation and have input into what the solutions are. I think that’s a big piece of what’s missing.”
That concern has been echoed by unhoused advocates at recent council meetings.
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has also expressed her opposition to the proposal. She says that the city needs to solidify plans for long-term housing before evicting campers from Reindahl Park.
The debate over these encampments comes as the future of a permanent men’s homeless shelter is in limbo. The shelter has been operating a temporary location on East Washington, but talks to find a permanent shelter have stalled. A recent proposal to move the shelter to a new spot near East Town Mall narrowly failed to pass. Alder Halverson was one of five alders who voted against the measure.
Tomorrow’s Common Council meeting begins at 6:30pm.