Analysis: How Paul Soglin made the homeless Joe Parisi’s problem

2012-12-01T08:00:00Z 2012-12-02T07:13:56Z Analysis: How Paul Soglin made the homeless Joe Parisi’s problemPAT SCHNEIDER | The Capital Times | pschneider@madison.com madison.com

More than an hour into a contentious community meeting over the removal of the latest Occupy Madison homeless encampment this week, Mayor Paul Soglin leaned forward and asked a homeless man: “What is it you need right now?”

A way to get to his job besides bicycling more than an hour in the pre-dawn darkness from Token Creek Park, where campers were relocated to from the lawn of Dane County Human Services headquarters by county officials, he replied.

A job to go to, said another homeless man.

Jobs, transportation: it’s no revelation that those are part of the web of supportive resources needed to move homeless people into stable housing. But what is an intriguing development is the way that the mayor — pilloried last spring for his stone-faced refusal to let the original Occupy Madison camp on East Washington Avenue continue as a demonstration project in self-governance by the homeless — reached out to connect, person to person.

If you doubt the power of the common touch, consider the snapshot that went viral this week of a New York City policeman giving a homeless man a pair of boots the officer purchased himself.

And while Soglin’s gesture illustrates an evolution that may be more style than substance, it is a more nuanced approach that seems to have transformed him in homeless services advocacy circles from heartless autocrat to caring leader (at least for the moment).

As Soglin’s standing has risen, that of Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has crashed. This season it has been Parisi who has been grappling with the sometimes cantankerous Occupy crew, homeless people who with the support of advocates are agitating to change the local service delivery model to incorporate self-determination.

The group is outraged by the Nov. 20 relocation of their tents and belongings from Lake View Hill Park on the city’s north side to Token Creek Park in the town of Burke. Homeless people, their advocates, and some neighbors of the park are also appalled by the show of force used — some 30 sheriff’s deputies were on hand to back up County Parks Department workers who packed and moved campers’ gear — and they accuse officials of violating civil rights by seizing and going through personal belongings.

“Joe Parisi is inflicting more trauma on the homeless,” an advocate filming the encounter remarked as the campers argued at Token Creek Park with county officials over the return of their gear. Advocate Craig Spaulding posted an online letter to Parisi asking why so much money was spent on removing the encampment from Lake View Hill when money for homeless services is so tight.

Parisi was not present Monday night, sending executive assistant Jeff Kostelic instead. It didn’t play well with the crowd.

And despite the fact that the city had little to do with the latest encampment since the Madison Police Department ceded jurisdiction over the county-owned park located in the city (insisted on it, to hear Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney tell it), Soglin came to the community meeting in a neighborhood rocked by its confrontation with homelessness.

It played well with the people.

Soglin’s message Monday was similar to the one he’s been articulating as far back as his previous mayoral administration, which ended in the mid-1990s. “We do not have the capacity to take care of all the homeless” in Dane County, he said. But now Soglin is also opening up to express his feelings about drawing a line on how much the city will spend on services to the homeless.

“I do not like to be in the position to have to say it,” Soglin said. “I do not like to seem uncaring, but I am determined that we will get partners in dealing with this problem.”

That was the message, too, in Soglin’s publicly released letter to Parisi in September, scolding the county for failing to consult the city before preparing to open a daytime warming house in a neighborhood where it would need zoning changes not likely to be quickly granted. The mayor reiterated, too, that the city just can’t — and won’t — go it alone.

The message seems to have been effective, at least from the mayor’s vantage point. Tenney-Lapham neighborhood residents are upset about the opening of a day warming shelter for the homeless in their neighborhood for the second year in a row, and it is the county that is bearing the brunt of their complaints. The same was true when the Occupy campers pitched their tents near the Human Services Department building — and also near many unhappy neighbors.

It wasn’t that long ago that Soglin was being blasted by advocates for the homeless over a budget proposal to spend $25,000 to help homeless people return to their families in other cities. That plan was derided as “Greyhound therapy,” but it was quickly abandoned in favor of using the money to help fund a permanent homeless day shelter.

By Tuesday, Soglin was introducing a resolution to begin studying where and how to build single room occupancy housing, viewed by many as the best, most practical way to get homeless individuals off the street.

The mayor has also apparently embarked on an initiative to discover how and why any among Dane County’s homeless are falling through the cracks of service delivery, if his close questioning of homeless people at Monday’s meeting is any indication.

His new approach to homeless initiatives is winning praise from progressives who were stunned by his tone-deaf approach to the issue six months ago.

“I feel his awareness has grown and I see a change in perspective,” said Sue Pastor, who said she, like other members of Progressive Dane, was disappointed with Soglin’s past handling of the issue. “He spoke to homeless people as ‘people,’” Pastor said of the mayor’s interactions on Monday. “I think that is what leadership looks like.”

Mike Verveer, a downtown alderman who was in office as far back as Soglin’s last administration, says he never doubted Soglin’s commitment on homeless and other poverty issues, “it’s just that there’s just been some disagreement on how to help people out of the cycle of poverty.”

But if dollars and cents mean anything, it would seem that Soglin is not alone in demonstrating compassion for the homeless. Not only is the county spending $75,200 to operate the warming shelter this winter, but the 2013 budget includes $600,000 toward a permanent day shelter and $500,000 to buy land for 40 units of single-room-occupancy housing next year and $1.2 million to build them in 2014.

Not only that, but as far back as summer, a resolution to provide public portable toilets and other basic needs for the homeless was introduced by County Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner of Madison and, led by Parisi’s office, became a proposal for the warming shelter that opened on East Washington Avenue this week.

All of this is why Parisi doesn’t understand why he’s being cast as the heavy on the homelessness issue. In a phone interview this week, he pointed to the new county initiatives and what he counts as a total of $4.5 million in spending if you figure in services aimed at helping people out of circumstances contributing to homelessness.

“There’s this impression over the last couple weeks that the county ignores the homelessness issue — that’s simply not true. We spend more than our partners do,” he said. “Everyone should be part of it — the county, the city, the private sector, nonprofits — because there are so many challenges.”

If that sounds a lot like the mayor, Parisi also sounds a lot like Soglin when he says the encampment was not an acceptable response to homelessness. “My main concern is for the health and safety of people and getting them into shelter and services that will provide solutions to their challenges. Camping in tents is not the answer,” he said.

After several warnings — amid rising tensions between campers with their supporters and nearby residents — Parisi said county officials decided to remove the encampment. “My goal was to do everything I could to de-escalate the situation,” he said. He said he sent professional staff to talk with the campers, just like he has staff represent him in other situations on many issues.

That doesn’t mean he’s not engaged, Parisi insists. “My style perhaps is a little more under-the-radar, but I am investigating,” he said.

That’s pretty much County Board Supervisor Dennis O’Loughlin’s take on it.

“Parisi is in the game,” he replied when I asked him about the county executive’s leadership on the encampment issue. “Just because he is not out in front of a camera doesn’t mean he’s not in the game.”

It’s not Parisi’s job to negotiate with homeless people, says of O’Loughlin, of DeForest, who is interested enough in the issue himself that he visited the encampment at nearby Token Creek Park to see what the group needed.

Others involved in the issue are looking for more leadership from Parisi, however. “I certainly would hope he would have a more hands-on role than I’ve seen,” said Michael Basford, who chairs the county-city Homeless Issues Committee set up this summer on a proposal introduced by Wegleitner after the controversy surrounding the closing of the original Occupy Madison by Soglin.

The committee has asked the county for information on why the latest Occupy eviction unfolded as it did, Basford told me. He said he’s also eager to hear Parisi’s vision of homelessness services, which he says he’s uncertain of despite the county’s stepped-up spending.

“It’s really hard to get a read on where he’s coming from,” Basford said, adding that he expects Parisi to explain it at the committee’s next meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4 at the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

“We’re sending them an info pack,” Parisi told me. “If they have any questions, they can always pick up the phone.”

I hear on the blogosphere, though, that Parisi has asked Tami Miller, a Belleville resident whose Facebook-based volunteer effort to feed the homeless has tapped a reservoir of public concern over homelessness, to meet with him next week.

Maybe he’s reaching out now, with that powerful common touch.

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(10) Comments

  1. Stan
    Report Abuse
    Stan - December 02, 2012 11:41 am
    Luca Clemente is the one who needs to get a clue. "...politicians will only be as progressive as we demand them to be."

    We can see very well what your list of "demands" has included - free Metro bus passes, free shuttle van transportation multiple times per day, every day, from Token Creek, and loads of other free goodies at TAXPAYER EXPENSE. Meanwhile, all the other homeless staying in the shelters don't get any of the freebies you and your tiny little clan of 'activists' are demanding. The comical farce labeling itself as 'Occupy Madison' is the group that is a waste of time and taxpayer resources.

  2. RecessionSux
    Report Abuse
    RecessionSux - December 01, 2012 7:22 pm
    Soggy looks homeless.
  3. smdevos
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    smdevos - December 01, 2012 3:53 pm
    At present, the County provides NO financial assistance for transit. If transit is part of Human Services, that should change. Maybe next year's budget can be more inclusive?
  4. Luca Clemente
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    Luca Clemente - December 01, 2012 12:38 pm
    As a member of Occupy Madison, let me say that Richard S Russell gets it. Unfortunately, Stan does not.

    We continually hear how there is a 'right' way and a 'wrong' way to achieve our goals, and that we are choosing the 'wrong' way. We of Occupy Madison have collectively decided that the 'right' way--remaining atomized, isolated, and suffering in silence while elected officials continue to ignore reality--is an utter waste of time. Occupy Madison--working both inside and outside the system--continues to be a major force for change that keeps this vital issue in the media and on the minds of our elected officials. We reject top-down models of decision making and insist upon having a meaningful voice in how our community is shaped. Madison and Dane County have lots of caring and hard-working elected officials, but we must never forget that politicians will only be as progressive as we demand them to be.
  5. Stan
    Report Abuse
    Stan - December 01, 2012 9:16 am
    Pat Schneider - why the fawning coverage of Occupy Madison and Brenda Konkel's mission to harass and trash-talk not only county employees, but every other homeless non-profit in the city?

    In truth, "Occupy" is a relatively tiny group of misfits who can't or won't work within the existing homeless support structure here in Madison. Describing them as "cantankerous" glosses over not only their refusal to accept other options in the city - it also fails to encompass the fact they deliberately break the law by squatting and refusing to comply with county requests.

    This isn't a homeless advocacy group - it's a political agenda used by Brenda Konkel and others to abuse and harass our local officials, and gain attention and sympathy from bleeding hearts like Pat Schneider and the rest of the liberal clique at the Cap Times. "Occupy" represents but a tiny fraction of the homeless population here in Dane County, yet they've monopolized county resources and time far beyond their numbers - demanding free shuttles multiple times a day from Token Creek simply because they refuse to accept any other option. The rest of the homeless here in Dane County - the ones who actually go to the shelters and cooperate - don't get free shuttles or all the free PR " Occupy" has been able to command. How is this fair?

    Please stick a cork in it and let the city and county provide services. "Occupy" will fall apart from its own irrelevance, and Brenda Konkel can move on to some other issue to jam her nose into.
  6. tjmertz
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    tjmertz - December 01, 2012 9:11 am
    Soglin is a Chicago boy and I am sure he know the story about Richard J. Daley and Martin Luther King...King was saying "There are thousands of hungry children in Chicago today" and Daley responded, "Give me their names and I'll get them fed..." That's what this sounds like.
  7. Billie
    Report Abuse
    Billie - December 01, 2012 7:56 am
    I find it interesting that only one political party was qouted. Could it reveal a little bias?
  8. BigWheel
    Report Abuse
    BigWheel - December 01, 2012 7:46 am
    "Jobs, transportation: it’s no revelation that those are part of the web of supportive resources needed to move homeless people into stable housing."

    Actually, in this case, it is the selection of out-of-the-way Token Creek campground as a temporary living area for those homeless that is creating the separation between jobs and transportation, at least for the guy who has to ride a bike an hour. People always seem to forget that you can address commute times by giving people the option to live closer to where they work.
  9. RichardSRussell
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    RichardSRussell - December 01, 2012 7:19 am
    I've often joined other people in wondering just what the Occupy movement hoped to accomplish. Now I have at least a partial answer. Just by being able to attach a group name to all the homeless people who for decades have been suffering anonymously — as isolated individuals, easy to ignore in groups of 1 or 2 — in one of the most successful cities in the richest nation in history, it's finally given them critical mass and gotten them some help.
  10. Big_Joe
    Report Abuse
    Big_Joe - December 01, 2012 7:01 am
    Age and treachery overcomes youthful optimism...
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