Calling a growing homeless encampment in Reindahl Park at "crisis level," one east side alder pushed to end it soon, but the City Council opted to let committees weigh in before making a final decision.
Ald. Gary Halverson, who represents the park located in District 17, proposed the measure that would enforce the city’s ordinances that ban camping in parks and restore Reindahl Park’s 91 acres at 1818 Portage Road for its original uses.
“It is time to recognize that this isn’t a solution for the individuals — this isn't healthy for them — and it’s certainly not a solution for the District 17 residents I’m speaking for,” Halverson said.
In the absence of the Reindahl Park campsite, the resolution called for staff to set up temporary restroom facilities and handwashing stations at city-owned property located at 3218 Dairy Drive on the southeast side — about seven miles from Reindahl Park — in case people seek an alternative camping area.
These services would be available until Oct. 30 under Halverson's resolution.
Foregoing typical City Council procedures, the resolution was introduced so that it could be discussed and adopted Tuesday. Typically, resolutions are introduced at City Council meetings and then referred to committees before returning to council at a later date.
It would have taken 14 votes to vote on Halverson’s resolution Tuesday, but it only received six. In addition to Halverson, Alds. Syed Abbas, District 12; Sheri Carter, District 14; Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1; Arvina Martin, District 11; and Charles Myadze, District 18, supported discussing and voting on the resolution Tuesday.
Had the procedural motion to act on the resolution Tuesday passed, the Council could have taken a second vote on the substance of Halverson's resolution: enforcing the camping ordinances at the park.
Now, the resolution will be discussed by the City-County Homeless Issues Committee and the Equal Opportunities Commission before the City Council takes a final vote. Approving the actual resolution requires a simple majority of 11 votes.
In a letter shared with alders and city residents with questions about Reindahl, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said that “unregulated encampments are not desirable for the people living there and are not compatible with equitable park use and park management.”
She has directed city staff to continue looking for a permanent men’s homeless shelter, possible sites to build more “tiny houses” and to search for options for a possible temporary and managed encampment on city land that is not a park.
“My hope is that we can find a safe, temporary option yet this summer,” Rhodes-Conway said in the letter. “But advocates for the homeless and the campers themselves must be realistic; property options are limited and they may not have all the amenities we would like.”
Halverson said the resolution enforcing camping rules at Reindahl is critical so problems don't escalate. According to the Madison Police Department, there have been three deaths related to drugs in the park.
Last month, Halverson introduced a resolution to create an alternative to camping in parks. This directed city staff to find a location for “Hope Village,” which would include 10 tiny houses and showering and restroom facilities.
“If we don’t act rapidly and expediently to solve these challenges, we’re going to be in a worse place,” Halverson said.
Halverson said action is needed because the encampment continues to grow — there are more than 40 people at the park and others living out of their cars — and it isn’t safe for those living in the park or residents wanting to use the outdoor space.
“The resolution for today was an effort to pull everyone's attention to this is not working,” Halverson said. “I’m very concerned someone is going to die or be injured again.”
MPD North District Capt. Brian Austin said in a statement Tuesday that the encampment interferes with other park uses and the current situation is “not tenable from a health and safety standpoint.” He recognized that the situation is complex and that the solutions “clearly cannot be police-driven.”
“There are undeniable issues related to sanitation and drug use, as evidenced by the tragic loss of life we have already seen in the encampment,” Austin said.
Brenda Konkel, the executive director of MACH One Health and president of Occupy Madison, said the resolution to start enforcing ordinances at Reindahl is “irresponsible” and “not much of a plan.”
Further, she said moving people experiencing homelessness to Dairy Drive is not a workable solution because it’s not close to services, and transportation to that site would be difficult.
“It’s a big disruption to the community,” Konkel said. “It just creates more trauma and more issues.”
The past year has been difficult for homeless providers, Konkel said, because camps have moved across the city. The uncertainty created chaos, she said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading in the community, the city allowed camping on a temporary basis — called temporary permissible encampments — at the Starkweather Creek conservation area and Reindahl Park.
People chose to camp in McPike Park on the city’s near east side instead, though it was largely abandoned in March when the city ordered the camp’s closure. The city then called for campers to leave Reindahl Park by May 9, leaving Starkweather as the only authorized option for living outdoors.
“We’re so busy managing crises that are created by the city that we’re not having time to deal with the actual work we’re supposed to be doing,” Konkel said.
Konkel said Reindahl is a good location for camping because the size of the park allows people to spread out and have more privacy. It’s also near a grocery store and gas station.
Men’s shelter search
Meanwhile, the city’s search for a permanent men’s shelter continues.
At the council’s executive meeting earlier Tuesday, Community Development Director Jim O’Keefe said the city evaluated at least nine properties in consideration for the site of a permanent men’s shelter and narrowed it to four finalists.
O’Keefe said two of the four locations are centrally located, while two are more distant. Three of them are within 3.5 miles of The Beacon day resource center on East Washington Avenue.
He said one site would involve “substantial renovation” of an existing structure and three would involve new construction. Three of the properties require new appraisals, which O’Keefe said will take some time.
The latest search is in response to the City Council failing to approve the purchase of a vacant big-box retail building on Zeier Road, near East Towne Mall, for a shelter. Last October, the city thought it had secured a former child care center at 4111 East Towne Blvd. for a shelter, but had to rethink the plan after the property’s seller backed out of the deal.