Tough Compassion on Homelessness

The City of Madison is chasing its tail on its homeless problem, but don’t blame the current mayor. No past mayor has been able to solve this puzzle either, and one of them was me.

The city has been struggling with homeless encampments. The strategy has been to designate official sites in city parks where camping is allowed on a temporary basis. The problem is that “temporary” is flirting with permanent at the current site in Reindahl Park, on the city’s Far East Side. There are about 30 to 50 homeless people camping there and it has become a mess. Ald. Gary Halverson has been pushing the city to get the encampment out the park in his district and into a better setting. Now, the city has located a new site on the Southeast Side and it’s taking the first steps toward shutting down the Reindahl encampment. Ald. Jael Currie deserves credit for welcoming the move to land in her district.

While the city has been too slow in responding to Halverson’s concerns, it’s not like the problem is an easy one. Homelessness ebbs and flows, not just here, but in virtually every city of any size in America. If this were an easy thing to fix some community would have done it long ago and everybody else would have followed suit.

The Reindahl Park homeless encampment. Nobody should have to live like this. State Journal photo.

But, look folks, in the richest country on earth, it’s time to stop tolerating homelessness and to do two dramatic things to end it. All it takes is a lot of political will and — in the scheme of things — a little bit of money.

The first thing to do is to simply enforce the laws we have. It is not legal to camp in a park or to sleep on a street or on public or private property. Does that mean that I want to “make homelessness illegal” as the advocates would charge? Maybe, but in any event I don’t want to make it any more illegal than it already is.

The rule should be that if a person is found sleeping in a place where it’s not legal to be, they’ll be asked to leave and, if they refuse or they report that they have nowhere else to go, they’re taken to a publicly supported facility where they have their own room, sanitary facilities and access to food.

We already have some of these facilities — and I’m not talking about jails. There is a shelter for families and a shelter for single men, but these are, in fact, only “shelters.” I’m talking about real long-term housing. A place of personal space where a person can spend the day as well as sleep. And a place where that person can access whatever services he might need: help finding a job, treatment for an addiction, dental or other medical care, whatever. Basically, I’m talking about an apartment building with supervision and services.

The goal would be to get people out of the facility and into a job and their own home, but there would be no hard and fast rule about how long that might take. There would also have to be a secure portion of the facility for people who arrive drunk, on drugs or who are otherwise a danger to themselves or others. Those folks might have to be transferred to a dedicated facility for treatment.

One thing that needs to happen is that we have to make it easier to involuntarily commit people for treatment. In response to horror stories about asylums and about locking up people who were simply troublesome or eccentric, commitment laws were tightened up five decades ago. But now it’s too hard to get people off the street and we never followed up by creating enough treatment resources in the community. We can’t end homelessness until we reverse those two mistakes.

The rule should be simple. It’s not okay to sleep on the street or in a park. If you can’t afford a roof over your head, we’ll give you one. If you don’t want a roof over your head, well sorry, but you’re going to get one anyway.

Welcome to the 195th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “Tough Compassion on Homelessness

  1. Great points, I especially appreciate your reference to the deinstitutionalization movement – when all those asylums were closed indeed they were supposed to be replaced with community based resources and that never happened.

    If we could just start by following-through with some of the decisions and findings of the past we’d be so much better off!! It reminds me of crime – Pres. Johnson had a commission study crime and they released a report called “Challenge of Crime in a Free Society” in 1967. If we had followed through with the recommendations in that report we’d be in such better shape now.


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