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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Overcast
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Soglin vs. the homeless: Occupy Madison conflict pits mayor against an unlikely group
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Soglin: 'If you want to deal with poverty, you have to have the resources.'
Soglin: 'If you want to deal with poverty, you have to have the resources.'

Allen Barkoff was an early supporter of Paul Soglin, and helped campaign for him back in 1973, when Soglin first ran for mayor.

Although he's only met Soglin a few times, he's always admired his politics. So Barkoff was stunned last Friday when he went with a few other Occupy Madison activists to see about getting an extension or finding a new home for the tent city, which has morphed from a political protest into a makeshift homeless shelter on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue.

The mayor didn't just politely decline the request by Occupy Madison, Barkoff says. "Essentially his mood was hostile, confrontational," Barkoff says. "He took everyone by surprise. He sat down, he looked at me, and said, 'You called the meeting, what do you want?'"

"I just don't understand his lack of ability to even discuss this issue in a reasonable way," Barkoff adds. "Maybe he was attacked by a homeless person sometime?"

Soglin has a well-earned reputation for being cantankerous. But his attitude toward the Occupy Madison group has taken even his progressive allies by surprise.

"I don't know what's going on with him," says Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway. "I am a little surprised at how vehement he feels about it."

Tuesday night, the Common Council contemplated defying Soglin. It agonized over having to evict roughly 60 homeless people who have turned what started as a political protest, in solidarity with others around the country, into a temporary homeless shelter. Some nights, the tent village has swelled to 100 people. The encampment has not received any direct funding or services from the city, other than electricity and trash removal. Food, shelter, portable toilets and wood were donated.

The council had a resolution to extend the deadline for vacating the site from April 30 to June 30. But after testimony from city staff and health department officials, it became clear that the power resides with the state, which has not shown any willingness to extend the permit. And what's more, the campground is violating the city's own zoning laws.

Testimony from homeless people and their friends urging council members to find a way to keep the site going was at times heartbreaking. One homeless man, Harold Morgan, crying, said, "Mr. Mayor, I understand we cause problems. But we support you. Please support us."

Trina Clemente, an Occupy activist, cried as she told the council about how her son was hit by a car as a teenager and suffered permanent brain damage. However, in a cruel bureaucratic twist, he didn't suffer quite enough damage to qualify for government support. Now in his 20s and living out of state, he has spent time homeless, Clemente said, and probably will again. She asked council members to imagine themselves as parents of a child in such a situation: "You would be so grateful if they could go to a tent city where there is a community that cares about them."

Many alders were clearly sympathetic. Rhodes-Conway said the city's efforts to deal with homelessness are going nowhere. "You've created something that's wonderful," she said of the camp. "To lose that breaks my heart."

But, she added, "I can't in good conscience vote for something that is clear to me is contrary to the state constitution and the laws of our city."

Wanting to address the issue in some way, the council voted to form a joint committee with Dane County to address issues raised by the homeless community and Occupy Madison, including the shelter system and the harassment of homeless individuals. And it agreed to allow the occupiers to keep their cars in the lot until the deadline. They'd previously been told they had to move those a week beforehand.

Some on the council lamented the creation of yet another committee to look at the issue, but Ald. Marsha Rummel hopes real change will result. She noted the recent elections brought a "sea change" on the Dane County Board, which provides the bulk of social services. Progressives now have a solid majority, she said, and "Those people better step up."

After the meeting, Dave Peters, a resident of the camp, predicted "the camp will close down and will reopen in a different time and place."

He was dejected that the council didn't do more. Come April 30, he said, the camp residents "are going to be scattering like cockroaches all over the place."

A notable part of the conflict has been Soglin's hostility toward Occupy Madison. A mayor with an activist past who has a clear desire to help the poor might be able to find some common ground with protesters calling attention to economic inequities and homelessness. That hasn't been the case.

In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Soglin says he is not upset over the conflict. "Don't confuse firmness with anger."

However, he said he did feel "betrayed" by a group he worked hard to get a long-term camping permit for. "This was designed to provide some longevity, with an end date."

In a speech to the council Tuesday night, Soglin reiterated his arguments: The city spends a lot on social services; Madison attracts the homeless; the city can't do everything, especially now that revenues are decreasing and homeowners are struggling.

"We are a magnet for people in need," he said. "If you want to deal with poverty, you have to have the resources."

Rhodes-Conway says she understands the city faces severe limitations, but adds, "These people need housing now and they need it here. Just saying it's not our job isn't acceptable to me."

Soglin says that his priorities as mayor remain dealing with the city budget and addressing poverty. He pointed out that earlier Tuesday, Porchlight broke ground on a 48-unit housing complex for single adults at 4002 Nakoosa Trail, on the city's east side. The city donated land for the project.

Former Ald. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, says while she admires Soglin for many reasons, his animosity toward the homeless isn't new. "Everybody knows he thinks poor people come from Chicago," she says. "This is exactly the Paul Soglin we've always had.... He keeps [saying] that they choose to be homeless. Nobody was choosing to sleep in a parking lot in the middle of winter."

Konkel says Soglin seems not to have read the figures his staff presented, which show that a majority of those served by the shelters come from Dane County and that the number of people served by them has dropped. And the shelters are still turning away 2,000 people a year.

One thing is notably absent from Soglin's rhetoric. At his press conference and at the council meeting, the mayor never mentioned anything good that came about through Occupy Madison or acknowledged how hard it is to be homeless. Rummel notes that Soglin seems hurt by the fact that the protesters originally agreed to be gone by April 30 and have now changed their minds.

"This is a social movement" not a contract, she says. "He's never appreciated what they created. Which is the sad thing."

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