Acting on advice from the Center for Disease Control, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway issued an emergency order Wednesday allowing temporary encampments of people experiencing homelessness to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
It is currently against city ordinances to stay in city parks overnight or to take shelter or reside in green spaces. However, keeping individuals who do stay outside in place as opposed to dispersing them throughout the city could prevent the transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, throughout the wider community.
“We think that this is a very measured, controlled response for people who camp, as long as they're not causing problems or engaging in illegal behavior,” Mary Bottari, chief of staff to Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, said.
The mayor, in consultation with Public Health Madison and Dane County and the Community Development Division, can revoke the “temporary permissible encampment” designation under specific guidelines that include the end of the coronavirus pandemic public health emergency.
The mayor’s second emergency order, which the City Council could change or rescind at its May 19 meeting, follows steps by the city to provide services to individuals experiencing homeless during the pandemic.
“The city of Madison’s primary goal is to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have safe accommodations,” a city policy statement on serving people experiencing homelessness stated. “Since the onset of the current public health crisis, local officials and service providers have collaborated to expand and improve short-term shelter accommodations with an eye toward more safely serving shelter users.”
These actions include removing families from the Salvation Army’s shelter for women and families to allow more space for single women, and identifying and moving those at higher risk for COVID-19 to area hotels. Also, the city is providing safer accommodations to those with COVID-19 symptoms and standing up a new overnight shelter for single men at Warner Park.
However, some people may be unable to use shelter resources or choose not to use them. In these cases, the CDC has advised against disrupting encampments because it causes people to disperse throughout the community.
“This increases the potential for infectious disease spread,” according to the CDC.
As of Thursday, 450 people in Dane County have contracted COVID-19, and 22 have died from it. Across the state as of May 6, 8,901 have tested positive for the virus, and 362 have died from it.
City staff have developed a policy to temporarily curtail active enforcement of ordinances that limit or restrict camping on city properties. But this does not mean that the ordinances are waived or that the policy grants permission for people to camp on private property or on city property in circumstances that are not consistent with the following guidelines:
- The proposed “temporary permissible encampment site is located at least 500 feet from any residential property.
- The site is not in a flood plain or other low lying area susceptible to flooding, or otherwise in a location that is deemed unsafe; is accessible via public property or right of way; is accessible for delivery, servicing and removal of portable toilets, hand washing stations, and trash containers.
- Those using an area can practice social distancing protocols, which are 12 feet by 12 feet per person.
- The presence of an encampment on or near city-owned land or associated facilities, like park shelters,will not prevent, disrupt or interfere with their intended public use.
- The use of city-owned land as a temporary camping site will not prevent city staff from performing normal maintenance or upkeep of the area or facilities.
- The site is not located in an environmentally sensitive area.
Where feasible, the city may provide services at the sites that include portable toilets and hand washing stations, trash containers and regular visits by outreach workers.
Ald. Grant Foster, District 15, said the city’s policy should be consistent with current enforcement action, especially when constituents ask him about existing encampments.
“It’s important as a lawmaker and an official to point to what we’re doing and have that stand up,” Foster said. “If we are going to choose to not enforce it temporarily, I think it’s important to put that out there publicly.”
Foster sponsored a resolution by title only at the City Council’s May 5 meeting in support of allowing temporary use of specified city lands to promote safe outdoor space practices.
“The goal is not, at this point, to create new locations to move people to new places,” Foster said. “The approach is to basically give temporary permission in certain public areas where encampments have already established.”
The mayor can halt the use of temporary encampments when the public health director determines a public health emergency no longer exists, the continued use of the encampment no longer serves the health and safety of its users, or the community or the site is not longer suitable for a temporary encampment.
Also, the mayor can stop the encampments if the users of an encampment engage in illegal or unsafe behaviors, if continued use of them are deemed disruptive to neighboring residents, if it makes the area unavailable or unsave for public uses or if those camping have violated the city’s Parks Behavioral Policy.
When the temporary permissible encampment designation is revoked, the city will notify homeless outreach staff, post a notice at encampments and give five days notice for people to vacate the site.