Update on City Plans for the Unsheltered
There is not a simple, or single, response to the situation at Reindahl Park. The people choosing to live in the park are mostly unwilling to use congregate shelter options like the temporary men’s shelter at First Street or the women’s shelter on E. Washington Avenue. The issue is complicated by the pandemic, of course, and by the large population growth in Madison over the last 10 years, the failure of our housing market to keep up, and the increasing scarcity of affordable housing options.
No one – not myself, City staff, neighbors, advocates, service providers, even the campers themselves – is happy with the situation. And I hope that everyone knows that the use of Reindahl Park as an encampment must come to an end. As spring approached this year, I tried to discontinue the use of this park as a temporary permitted encampment at the recommendation of City staff. However, the Common Council voted to direct staff to allow camping until alternative options were developed.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the City’s response to homelessness has been robust. We have completely transformed our approach to sheltering single men, using City facilities to create safer, temporary shelters, first at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center and then at the former Fleet Services building on First Street. We are committed to developing the City’s first purpose-built men’s shelter but understand that, before it is completed, another temporary arrangement will be necessary so that plans for the Madison Public Market can proceed at the First Street site. We helped The Salvation Army create the “Shield of Hope” temporary shelter for families experiencing homelessness, and expand capacity at the women’s shelter. We’re also working to support their plans to build new permanent shelter facilities for families and single women on property they own on E. Washington. We supported and facilitated the second OM Village, and remain committed to tiny house villages as an option for some. And we have increased funding for multiple agencies to do outreach to people experiencing homelessness all across the city to link them to services they need.
The City must respond to, and balance the needs of, everyone involved at Reindahl - including area residents, park users, campers, and advocates – all of whom are anxious to see progress on this issue. No one has been more impatient than me - but I assure you that city staff from a broad range of departments have been working hard behind the scenes to find better and safer alternative locations for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The lack of adequate City-owned properties that are not community parks, and which are accessible to transit, greatly slowed the search for acceptable alternatives. Hundreds of properties were assessed.
With the Common Council’s support, our response to the Reindahl situation has included a number of specific actions. City staff , who visit the site and interact with campers, are working to create a safety plan, with input from any willing partners – campers, service providers, advocates, park users and residents – to better address the health and safety concerns at the park. Madison Police continue to respond to calls for services in and around the park, despite resistance from some campers and advocates. To be clear, despite claims made by some, no one – not me, not my office, nor the Common Council - has directed, nor suggested to the police, that they not address safety issues in or around Reindahl Park.
At present, we are preparing to set up alternative, temporary, “shelter campgrounds”, which will provide a safer, more secure shelter option for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, including some at Reindahl. These sites will be actively managed to maintain a safe environment and connect residents to the services they need. The first will be located at a City-owned property on Dairy Drive. It will accommodate up to 30 campers. City staff are actively searching for a second site that will support a comparable number of people. Both sites will abide by City zoning and State licensure requirements. More information about the Dairy Drive site can be found here.
I want to assure everyone that our goal is to provide better, safer accommodations as we approach winter including:
- Climate-controlled living units
- On-site facilities providing running water, bathrooms and showers
- Connections to electricity
- Fencing for privacy and security
- On-site support staff to help with site management, finding housing, and support for behavioral health issues
Our goal is to create a safer, more structured arrangement that allows people to enjoy a more stable environment so they can be successful in taking the next step towards permanent housing, treatment and other services they may need to get their lives back on track. And to be clear – with these alternative sites, my intent is to bring the encampment at Reindahl Park to an end. It is not an appropriate use of this important City resource and residents around Reindahl are very anxious for the park to return to its normal uses.
This week a resolution will be introduced to the Common Council seeking authorization to purchase a building on Zeier Road that may be a good option for a temporary shelter for men until a permanent shelter can be constructed. At the same time, a second resolution will seek authorization to purchase another property on Bartillon Drive – the site of a former sports bar. The property on Bartillon has a number of possible uses to help with the unsheltered population, but final decisions about which of them to pursue will come a bit later as the City is still waiting for crucial information that will help us determine our path forward.
Madison is a generous and caring community. I appreciate all the messages my office has received expressing concern for people experiencing homelessness. If you are looking for ways to help, I encourage you to support non-profit organizations that work with the homeless community. I also encourage you to support the development of affordable housing in your own neighborhood. The only proven solution to homelessness is housing. If we are going to end homelessness, we have to have homes for people to move into.