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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Occupy Madison homeless community sticks together, despite threat of city fines
Keith Valiquette and Betty Ybarra have found a home with Occupy Madison on private land on Portage Road. The city says they have to leave.
Credit:Joe Tarr

For Keith Valiquette, the attraction of the Occupy Madison encampment isn't complicated.

"We want to be a community," Valiquette says. "We all generally like each other. This dividing up of men and women between the shelters breaks up families."

Valiquette's family includes his cocker spaniel puppy, Chip, and he adds: "I'd rather sleep with my dog in a tent than be treated like a dog in [a homeless shelter]."

Last weekend, Valiquette and the roughly 20 other Occupy members set up a new camp on Portage Road - their ninth or 10th in two years. Although it is private property, city officials have warned the residents that the camp violates the city's zoning regulations and that they risk daily fines by staying.

Occupy Madison formed in October 2011, in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street in New York, as a protest against financial crimes and the bailing out of the reckless investment firms that tanked the economy. Its first location was at Reynolds Park on the city's near east side.

After the group moved to a vacant lot in the 800 block of East Washington Avenue, it shifted focus as political activists became engaged with homeless folks and the problems they face in Madison.

"I was hanging out, sitting around the [fire] barrel, and started to hear all these incredibly disappointing stories about homelessness and what the services are," says Bruce Wallbaum, an Occupy member. "Occupy was about economic and social injustice, and we were witnessing it right in front of us. [We thought] we'd better do something about it."

But the city did not renew the group's camping permit at the end of April 2012, forcing it to move. Since then, Occupy has found a variety of places to set up camp, including Lake Farm Park, Lake View Hill County Park and, most recently, Token Creek Park, where it has been since November. By Wallbaum's count the group has had to move 27 times (it could only stay at Lake Farm Park in the summer, for two weeks at a time, necessitating the frequent moves).

Occupy is more than political theater, Wallbaum says. Fifty people stayed with the group last summer at Lake Farm Park for two weeks or longer. Of those people, 17 were able to find permanent housing by the end of the summer.

"There's a lot of positive things that have happened with Occupy, and we just keep getting knocked around," he says.

In each place the group has camped, visitors have come by to suggest: "Why don't you just find a piece of private land to stay on?"

It turns out that solution is unacceptable to the city. After the group was ordered to leave Token Creek by March 17, Koua Vang offered to let its members stay temporarily on property he owns in the 3600 block of Portage Road, at least until most of the county's campsites open again on April 15. Vang's property, which is zoned agricultural, doesn't have electricity, but it is on a bus line. Two portable toilets have been rented for the site.

Vang says he was inspired to help the group based on his own experiences. A Laos native, Vang spent a few years living in a Thai refugee camp in the late '70s.

"These people have no place to go. Where will they go?" he asks. "As a human being, we have to help people who cannot help themselves."

In Vang's mind, the group meets the definition of "refugee." "It's a situation of politics," he adds. "[The government] doesn't want to call these people refugees."

Matt Tucker, Madison's zoning administrator, says the city doesn't allow property to be used as campgrounds, aside from allowing families to camp out in their backyards for a night or two. Says Tucker: "There's nothing in the code that allows a small group or large group to go camping."

The fine for a first offense is $177, a second violation is $303 and a third $366. Vang could be fined $366 each subsequent day, meaning the total fine could quickly reach thousands.

"In a situation like this, you'd have the property owner cited, and each individual camper might be cited as well," Tucker says. "That site is encumbered by quite a bit of environmental restrictions. It's in a floodplain and is a wetland area. We'd want to make sure they wouldn't impact those sections of the code as well."

Tucker says the regulatory threat isn't personal: "I respect the guy's situation. He's a hell of a guy. But it doesn't relate to my job and the city's ordinance that I have to enforce."

Although the city has not yet fined Vang or any of the campers, Vang has vowed to challenge any citations in court. On Friday, he filed a zoning appeal. City Attorney Michael May says the city will set up a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing and will not levy any fines until then.

Vang, who is an attorney and executive director of United Asian Services of Wisconsin, is determined to fight.

"This is not a permanent solution. It's to help them until the campground is open," Vang says. "It's a piece of land. If animals and birds are okay to live there, why not human beings? We see people living on the street, under bridges - this is just the same."

The forced migration from Token Creek Park, Occupy's previous home, came at a precarious time, Wallbaum says. Many people staying at the homeless shelter located in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church will soon reach the shelter's 60-day seasonal limit and won't be allowed to stay there until next winter (except on nights when the temperature drops to 20 degrees and the limit doesn't apply). In addition, the temporary day shelter located on East Washington is scheduled to close March 31.

Wallbaum and others say the police recently swept the Capitol area, forcing homeless people sleeping out to move on. But Madison Police Lt. Dave McCaw says there's been no such city directive recently.

Regardless, Wallbaum says the forces are aligning against homeless people even more than usual right now.

"I wish someone in the community could answer the question 'Where are people supposed to go?'" he says. "If they're not going to let people stay downtown, if the men's shelter is over [for the season], and they can't stay on private land, then it's truly illegal to be homeless in Madison."

Even if that's true, Valiquette says he doesn't feel alone. He says people regularly drop by Occupy Madison to offer food, water and blankets and ask if the group needs anything.

"Some of these folks really tug at your heartstrings," says Valiquette, who has been homeless for about a year. "The other day, an elderly lady and her daughter, who was in her 30s, came by in tears. They said they might lose their house soon, and they wondered if they'd be welcome to stay here."

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