Since last May, the city of Madison has permitted two temporary encampments of unhoused residents in Reindahl and Starkweather Parks. The sites were an effort to alleviate strain on the city’s shelter services.
Now, city leaders are weighing the future of the Reindahl Park encampment — a future that may end with the eviction of the campers.
The camp at Reindahl sits off to the side of the park, and it’s composed of about a dozen tents near a patch of trees. Earlier this afternoon, only a couple of people were out and about. Some campers were away for the day, while others were asleep in their tents.
According to city estimates, there are about ten residents of the camp, although that number rises and falls as people come and go.
Benjamin Farwell has been at Reindahl for two months. He says that he was forced out of a city shelter after a medical incident.
If he’s booted from Reindahl, he says he’s not sure where he’ll go.
“The fact that they are trying to get rid of people that are just trying to live their lives is wrong,” he told WORT. “I have health issues, and I was kicked out of the actual shelter uptown, because I had a seizure. They thought I did something else, but I just had a seizure. Kicking us out of here would disrupt our lives because we would not have a place to live, a place to stay, a place to breathe.”
The Madison City Council is still deciding what to do about temporary encampments, with flexibility hindered by existing ordinances and state regulations.
During a nearly ten hour meeting that stretched from last night into this morning, the council postponed any decision on whether to evict the residents at Reindahl Park, referring the issue to multiple subcommittees.
The proposal considered last night would have allowed the Reindahl camp to continue until an appropriate alternate site could be located. It also would have established new standards for future encampments.
So, the Reindahl camp will be permitted to stay — for now. A knot of issues, from the legal viability of the camp to a debate over potential alternate sites, means that the site has entered an uneasy limbo.
The city has floated the option of potentially relocating Reindahl residents to Starkweather Park. Located about ten minutes away by car, Starkweather is the only other permitted option for unhoused individuals.
But Reindahl residents, some city leaders, and other advocates for unhoused individuals say Starkweather is essentially a swamp, leaving people staying there prone to ticks and mosquitos.
All of the Starkweather residents who spoke with WORT today reinforced that claim.
The tents at Starkweather are set on high ground, to avoid potential flooding, and a significant part of the landscape is low-lying fields. Julie Bandit has been at Starkweather since February. She says that, if campers can’t secure a high-ground camping spot, the conditions can become difficult in wet weather.
“People there at Reindahl, if they’re happy let them stay,” Bandit says. “But, it’s pretty harsh over there in the swamp and underneath Highway 30. It’s pretty rough. Alligators, snappers and things.”
There’s also a debate over access. Some city leaders say that emergency vehicles won’t be able to easily access campers at Starkweather. The city parks website even refers to the park as “mostly not accessible.”
Entering the park seems to baffle Google Maps. One recommended entrance was to stop on the side of Highway 30 and somehow get to the path below. This reporter blew by the Milwaukee Street entrance three times before approaching on foot — eventually spotting a small dirt road, shielded by a clutch of trees and foliage.
There’s no sidewalk leading directly to the Milwaukee Street entrance. To access it you either have to hike through a field, or cross a busy street.
On one side of the dirt road, which is closed to everything but foot traffic, is a sprawling Amazon hub. On the other side is farmland — with signs warning that trespassers will be fined.
As you make your way down the path, tents spring out of a strip of trees off the right. Eventually, the dirt road turns to a hiking path, and the sound of traffic from Milwaukee Street fades to a distant hum.
Tyrone and April Martin recently moved into the point where the hiking path meets the dirt road. They said they opted for Starkweather because of Reindahl’s current questionable status, and because of a lack of shelter options for married couples.
“If you’re married, they should have a couples option,” April says. “We don’t have kids — except our dog, he’s our child. The only thing they want to give is the female shelter for females and families. But if you don’t have any kids, then you don’t have too many options. Why split up a couple that have been a couple for years?”
The Martins both say that the major flaw in the city’s strategy for unhoused residents is a lack of affordable housing.
“You have to have a credit check, you have to have income. We have income, but it’s not enough,” April says.
“We just recently applied for a place to live,” Tyrone explains. “My stepson was approved, my father-in-law was approved, but we were denied because she doesn’t have any rental history and I have an eviction on my record that is over fifteen years old. So you mean to tell me that because I have an eviction that is that old, that I can’t get a place to live whatever my circumstances are? So you mean to tell me the rest of my life I’m going to be homeless?”
They also agreed that the city is taking action to help unhoused residents without actually asking those residents what would be best for them.
Says Tyrone: “I’m born and raised here, but the way they go about stuff these days? It’s not right.”