Madison mayor pushes for ban on sleeping in the day downtown

BRYNA GODAR

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is renewing a push to ban homeless people from sleeping or lying down on sidewalks downtown during the day.

A growing number of cities are using this strategy to cut down on encampments and messy sleeping quarters irking tourists and business owners.

But homeless advocates criticize such proposals as criminalizing homelessness and say Soglin’s proposal is undermining the community’s good efforts to get homeless individuals into housing.

“It’s all about not wanting to see homeless people downtown,” said Brenda Konkel, an advocate for the homeless and executive director of the Tenant Resource Center. “If he doesn’t want to see homeless people downtown, then he should help us solve the problem.”

Madison is one of the many communities across the country grappling with homelessness as the city grows. It’s making progress on the Housing First model, getting homeless individuals into new permanent, supportive housing, but there is still a long waiting list and homeless individuals still camp out throughout the downtown.

If the ordinance passes, Soglin said he hopes what will change is that “at 9:10 in the morning, people in Madison do not have to feel that they’re walking through someone else’s sloppy bedroom as they traverse city streets.”

Soglin’s proposed ordinance would bar individuals from lying down or sleeping on public sidewalks downtown or city office land from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Madison attorney Mike May said the mayor has asked him to reduce the fine from the $100 to $250 originally outlined in the proposed ordinance to about $10, with the goal of having people move on instead of fining them.

Such bans have been proliferating in recent years.

In 2011, 70 cities banned sitting or lying down in public places, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. By 2014, 100 cities had such bans in place.

Soglin’s ordinance is modeled after similar laws in Portland and Honolulu, each with different aims. In Portland, the rules were created to allow sleeping bags on sidewalks and tents or other temporary structures on rights of way so long as they’re gone by 7 a.m. Honolulu’s laws conversely aim to rid sidewalks and parks of the homeless.

Soglin said his aim, however, is to have homeless individuals start picking up after themselves, putting away bedrolls, picking up loose garments and “practicing basic health and sanitation.”

“This is not about sleeping on sidewalks, it’s about picking up after yourself,” Soglin said. “This really says nothing about sleeping on sidewalks.”

Konkel said if the mayor wants people to move their stuff off the street, he should give them lockers to put their belongings.

“I don’t see how that’s going to have any impact on that all,” Konkel said. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard. What does lying down have to do with creating a mess?”

The proposal faces long odds in a City Council that rejected a similar proposal from Soglin a year ago that also would have imposed a time-limit on how long people could use public benches.

Zach Wood, an alder on City Council who represents part of the downtown area, said something clearly needs to change, because it’s affecting businesses. But Wood said he has moral issues with banning people from sleeping or lying down outside when they have nowhere else to go.

“I don’t think that’s the kind of city I want Madison to be,” he said.

Ledell Zellers, another downtown alder, said she thinks the proposal could have some merit if done in conjunction with some actual solutions, such as providing storage.

“People vary in their level of comfort with the kind of disarray that they encounter when coming downtown, and so some people, it’s not that big a deal. Other people, they come down and they say I’m not doing this again,” Zellers said. “And in some cases it does impact businesses.”

A letter from Downtown Madison Inc. President Susan Schmitz from May 2016 outlines a series of alternative actions for improving safety and quality of life in downtown Madison, including enforcing existing Madison laws, adding lighting and cameras and working on better outreach.

“I think anyone who walks up and down the streets can tell you we need to find a better way of dealing with it,” Wood said.