Who to blame when the butler didn't do it (or band-aids on amputations)

Today’s LA Times has an article about a brewing backlash against the homeless in downtown Madison, WI. Years ago I wrote my senior thesis about the young people (my primary focus, anyway) that spent time in a small park just off State Street, the pedestrian thoroughfare that connects the University of Wisconsin campus to the capital. Shortly after finishing my thesis I interned at the YWCA’s family homeless shelter. Having had those experiences, I take somewhat more interest in news about homelessness in Madison than I do that in LA. I also feel that I’m qualified to say at least a little about what the issue looked like there in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The article starts with a nice idyllic view of Madison, where residents knew panhandlers by name and interacted with them amicably. It contrasts that picture with a current fear of the homeless resulting from two unsolved murders in the downtown area. In both cases the victims were killed in their homes, in the middle of the day, presumably by strangers. The police have focused some of their investigation on homeless in the area. This has, apparently, included taking DNA samples. This resulted in some arrests on other charges, but no break in the murder cases. The LA Times article suggests that some of the services Madison does provide for the homeless (including some shelters downtown as well as meals) are coming under popular attack.

Despite the story’s first paragraph, I don’t think that Madison can be said to be newly ambivalent about providing services to the down and out. Already in the late 90s there was a strong move to “clean up” State Street. The fact that Peace Park was a gathering spot for the homeless and various counter-culture kids at the time I was writing my thesis was precisely because increased enforcement of anti-loitering laws had pushed various groups who used to hang out along the whole of the street into one place. When I had first started thinking about my thesis various recognizable groups of street characters were arranged up and down the street. The cleanup effort involved things like refitting an area of concrete risers that had previously been a popular place for skateboarding and general hanging with planters to remove virtually all horizontal surfaces that could be sat upon. The street kids quickly learn exactly what surfaces they could sit on and where precisely the could congregate without running afoul of the local police patrols. For the most part, this boiled down to “don’t scare away the customers that patronize our restaurants and shops.” The article cites a rule allowing panhandling in only two places on State Street. I don’t think that had been codified at the point where I left Madison, but in effect there were only two places where panhandling took place without running afoul of rules about blocking traffic-flow on the sidewalk.

Even if the services available to the homeless were extremely generous, Madison would hardly be a likely haven for the vagrant. Winters often come equipped with bitter cold and substantial snow. There certainly isn’t a guarantee of a bed in a shelter and even if you have a place to go at night, many of the shelters for singles don’t let you stay during the day. I don’t know the details of the regulations for the shelters that served single men and women without children but I know all the city-funded family shelters allowed only a 30 day stay per year. Given that the average time to find housing in Madison was twice that, it’s hard to argue that the regulations were overly generous. Even for those trying very hard to get a job and get housing, the chances of success before the clock ran our were slim. Most of the subsidized options either had years-long waiting lists or required the kind of pristine credit histories that most people who find themselves in homeless shelters simply can’t boast. In short, even those with the motivation to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in 2001 often couldn’t. I can’t imagine that with the current economic situation that it’s become much easier.

And thus even if the recent murders can be attributed to homeless individuals, calling for fewer shelters and less tolerance of panhandling (and congregating in sheltered places such as the basement of the capital building) isn’t a logical response. In a city where only mothers with perfect credit can get into subsidized housing projects, and housing searches take longer than any helping hands are available, the problems that come with having a population of unhoused individuals simply can not be solved through increased enforcement against loitering and panhandling or reduction of available services. At best such strategies relocate problems to some other municipality (without in any way assuring that the problem won’t come back).

Of course my experiences were with homeless mothers, and mostly harmless street kids. It would, perhaps, be fair to accuse me of naivety and to argue that homeless men with substance abuse problems and mental illnesses are an entirely different kettle of fish. And that would be a fair point but I would still assert that passing laws to target the homeless, increasing police enforcement, and reducing access to shelter and food will only serve to make problems worse. In the absence of affordable housing, mental health care, and treatment for substance problems there’s little hope of reducing the possibility of violence in an urban landscape. Madison could, of course, take the tact of moving the problems out of the “good” neighborhoods into the “bad” ones.

Mostly, though, this article makes me sad because the truth is that there’s been violence in that area for years. Throughout my time living just off State Street my mother would worry because of newspaper articles about stabbings at night on side streets downtown. Those acts of violence didn’t fuel enough backlash to make the LA Times, though, because they weren’t acts of violence against nice middle-class people in the middle of the day.

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