A volunteer group that puts out a spread for homeless people every Sunday afternoon has been out in the cold for weeks since the Capitol Police barred them from the statehouse, where they've been serving up a weekly meal for years.
Edged out by crowds of protesters in mid-February, Savory Sunday organizers say Capitol Police refused last Sunday to let volunteers and the people they feed shelter themselves under the portico of the Capitol, despite the cold and rainy weather.
The meal served at the Capitol is popular with homeless people who congregate downtown, but its future is up in the air.
Capitol Police want to meet with meal organizers "to see if they can accommodate them," Carla Vigue, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administration, which oversees the Capitol Police, told me Friday afternoon. The "cafeteria" area in the basement where the group serves the meal, was used as a staging area for police during the peak of the protests, but is less in need now, she says.
But meal organizer Tom Barry tells me that Capitol Police told him Friday that the group could resume serving on April 3. The arrangement would be week-to-week, Barry says, depending on the number of protesters at the Capitol.
And, everyone entering the Capitol for the meal would have to have all their belongings screened at a checkpoint, like everyone else entering the building these days.
"That's disturbing," Barry says. "Most of the people who come have everything they own in a backpack. Being subject to screening is going to deter people."
Savory Sunday has been preparing meals at a nearby church and serving them up in the "cafeteria" -- really just some tables and chairs next to a vending machine area -- in the basement of the Capitol for about four years, says group organizer Dale Lavelle.
The group feeds 60 to 80 people at 2 p.m. each Sunday, sometimes as many as 120 people, according to Lavelle. The effort relies totally on volunteers, about 15 to 20 each week, many of whom are students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Using whatever food is available on a given Sunday through Community Action Coalition and other free sources, volunteer cooks put together meals that might include chicken, or spaghetti with meat sauce, and as many vegetable dishes as they can manage, says Lavelle.
I've never made it to Savory Sunday myself, but I've been told by people in the homeless community that it is among the best of the network of meals many of them rely on.
"It's excellent," says Todd Grisby, who was spending time Friday at the Madison Central Library. Having a meal available on Sunday in the downtown area is important.
"Some guys can't afford the bus to Luke House," an east-side meal site that serves on Sunday evening, Matthew Ogden says. "Some of the older guys just can't make it there."
Both men say they've seen few problems at the Savory Sunday meal, and do not see why the group was not allowed back in as the crowd of protesters at the Capitol has thinned out.
"They just don't want homeless hanging around anymore," says Grisby. "We're no longer welcome."
Savory Sunday organizers looked for another downtown location. They tried the patio area outside the entrance of the Central Library on West Mifflin Street, but were asked to leave.
The problem, says library community services manager Carol Froistad, was not only that the large group made it hard for other people to enter the library, but that people served by Savory Sunday were taking their food into the library, where eating is not allowed. They got kicked out.
"We certainly don't object to giving food to people, but we don't want anyone to block the entry, or for people to get in trouble," says Froistad. The library's own meeting rooms "quite often are booked," she says.
Savory Sunday changed its menu to hot sandwiches and other more portable foods and set up shop in the small plaza area with seating where West Mifflin dead-ends at State Street. Not everyone knows about the new location, but the group handed out 100 sandwiches last Sunday -- in the rain.
Barry says he's happy that it looks like Savory Sunday will get back into the Capitol for awhile, but the search of belongings "will affect a lot of people in an adverse way." He muses about the possibility of getting someone to watch over the homeless people's gear outside while they eat inside.
After Memorial Day, the group moves its meal to James Madison Park between Gorham Street and Lake Mendota for the summer.
Reaching out to acknowledge people who are homeless is important, and the Capitol is a fitting place to do it, Barry says. He says his own children have been among the young volunteers who have had their hearts and minds broadened by serving someone less fortunate through Savory Sunday.
"I would love to see the governor and his family help me and my family serve the homeless people," he says.
The group has a good track record, Lavelle says. There's no good reason to shut them out of the Capitol. "It is the people's house after all," he says.