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.