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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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A place called Occupy Madison: The homeless community plans its radical next step
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Credit:Eric Tadsen

When Caleb Pickle fled trouble at home in the spring of 2012, he wound up a stranger on the streets of Madison.

Pickle lived in the shelter system for a while but found it wasn't really helping him get back on his feet. He says case workers urged him to hang out for a few months and try to get on disability, perhaps by exaggerating his emotional problems. But Pickle wanted a job, not a "handout."

"I'm a confident person. I knew I was capable of living on my own and getting a job," the 20-year-old says. "I just needed some place to store my stuff."

Then he heard about a place called Occupy Madison. It was a group of people camping out, pooling resources. Pickle was skeptical at first - he worried the group might be unstructured or unruly - but gave it a chance.

At the time, the group was camping out at Dane County's Lake Farm Park on the south side of Madison. Occupy Madison gave Pickle a tent, a sleeping bag and a bus pass. Within a couple of weeks, he got work at a temp agency. Not long after that, he had a place at Port St. Vincent de Paul. Now he works as a caregiver and rents a room in a house. Soon he will move to a Fitchburg apartment. He credits Occupy with helping him get a foothold here.

"If you're literally sleeping on the streets, everyone you see walking by you can't really relate to, or they feel they can't relate to you," he says. "[Occupy Madison] brought back some sense of community for me. And some sense of having personal respect in the community." Perhaps most important, he adds, was being able to leave his things and "trust that nothing would happen to them."

In less than two years, Occupy Madison has struggled to establish itself as a cogent voice for the disenfranchised. Although some, like Mayor Paul Soglin, have been hostile toward the group, there have been real achievements. Dane County established a committee to address homeless issues. The county also set aside funding for a permanent day shelter and a number of low-income housing projects, both Occupy goals. And then there are the more low-key achievements, like helping Pickle and others get on their feet.

But all of that is small potatoes compared to what Occupy would like to do next. The group recently started a nonprofit and has an ambitious goal of creating an eco-village, where members could live in mini-houses, grow food, raise chickens, goats and bees, start businesses and live cooperatively.

It's a plan that even some Occupy members doubt they can pull off. But the problem of homelessness isn't getting any better here, and Occupy's solution might just be crazy enough to work, at least for some people.

"We're coming from a really good place, wanting to care for each other. It's in people's best interest," says Noah Phillips, an Occupy member. "A lot of different people in Madison and around the world have a lot to like about this vision. The obstacles should be surmountable."

Birth of a protest movement

Phillips was there on Oct. 7, 2011, the night Occupy Madison was born. A group of activists - sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street group hunkered down in Manhattan's financial district to draw attention to social and economic injustice - gathered at Reynolds Park to show solidarity. Occupy movements were sprouting up all over the country, and Madison's was not unique. Phillips was eager to be a part of something that could bring about genuine change.

"It was just very exciting," says Phillips, a UW-Madison student. "I'd been waiting for this, I don't know if 'uprising' is the right word, but this moment when people could believe."

Phillips was excited about the potential, but also annoyed by the disorganization. "I remember there being no structure, and that was driving me a little bonkers."

Three days after the camp was established, the police ordered the protesters to disperse. On Oct. 12, the group reconvened in a more visible spot - Veterans Park at Mifflin, State and Carroll streets on the Capitol Square.

It was then that Occupy Madison was confronted with a different reality. The plaza is a common hangout for homeless people, some of whom sleep there at night.

"We wanted to be all radical and edgy and sleep outside, but there were already these people sleeping outside," Phillips remembers. "There was this discomfort among some people that we were crashing other people's space."

The protesters caught the eye of Harold Morgan, who had been living on the streets for about a year. Morgan - who most people know by his nickname, "Hap" - saw the group needed help.

"None of them knew anything about sleeping out. I went back in the alley and got them some cardboard to sleep on," Morgan remembers. "Otherwise their little tushes would have been cold. You don't sleep on cement even in the summer, but this was late fall."

Several homeless people joined in the political discussions. Occupy Madison had created various action committees, and one focused on homeless issues.

"There was this attempt in the very beginning to compartmentalize the homelessness and to 'other-ize' them and set them apart," Phillips remembers. "But that became increasingly unfeasible, because homeless people had joined other committees and became very much a part of the camp life."

For some, it was too much to handle. A drunken homeless man might go on an extended rant during a meeting. "Everyone who wasn't willing to sit and listen to someone go on and on about something that wasn't immediately relevant left," Phillips says.

A shift in focus

After the camp moved to the 800 block of East Washington Avenue, homeless people and the issues they face consumed Occupy Madison.

Phillips remembers the shift. He went on a trip at the end of 2011 and returned the following March to notice that big changes had occurred. "None of my activist friends were there, and everyone there was homeless," he says. "The info booth [a table with leftist pamphlets]…was clearly neglected. The [general assembly meetings] had become people huddled around a fire barrel with beer or mysterious bottles."

But rather than give up on the group, Phillips was inspired.

"Homelessness is just a catchall word for when a system stops working for you," he says. "Homeless people aren't the dregs of humanity, but you're really starting with very little in terms of resources and people's resources in their own minds. It was very inspiring to see that people who had fallen out of this bubble could organize themselves and have a self-determined system."

Allen Barkoff, another of the original activists, was originally turned off by the shift away from Occupy Wall Street's goals. He had been working on issues related to foreclosures and people in danger of losing their homes.

Some felt not enough energy was going into Occupy Wall Street.

"I felt that way too," Barkoff says. "I gradually came around to the idea that homelessness was a direct result of injustice and economic equality in the United States."

Occupy's existence became a rallying point in the spring of 2012, when its camping permit was about to expire.

The homeless and their supporters wanted to continue the experiment in communal living, but Mayor Paul Soglin wanted them gone. The vacant lot on East Washington was slated for redevelopment, and the city had no interest in finding another spot for Occupy to set up camp.

In a series of city meetings, Occupy members - both the homeless and their supporters - pleaded with officials not to evict the camp.

Ald. Marsha Rummel found the testimony both heartbreaking and frustrating. "With government, everything takes longer than it should," she says. "For some of those social services, it's a two-year budget process."

In the end, the Common Council did not give Occupy a reprieve. The camp was forced to leave. But Rummel says Occupy has clearly influenced local government. The meetings led to the creation of a joint city-county homeless committee, spurred county involvement in the issue, and helped bring about a temporary day shelter this past winter.

"That wouldn't have happened without the influence of Occupy," Rummel says, adding that she appreciated the group's initiative. "They brought this do-it-yourself democracy, self-rule. It's so easy in a representative democracy to let other people make decisions for you."

Welcome to the occupation

Teresa Charest and her teenage daughter, Angel, ended up homeless last year after her husband left her. She couldn't afford to pay the family's bills and lost their apartment.

For a time, the two stayed with family and friends and in motels, but eventually they ran out of places to go. Charest was terrified she'd lose custody of her daughter, who was then 15. A social worker told them about Occupy Madison, and the two moved there with their dog in July, staying about three months, while the group was camping at Lake Farm Park.

"It was hard going to school and being at a campground," Angel remembers. "I got picked on a lot because of being homeless. A lot of [kids] said, 'Why do you smell like campfire?'"

In the mornings, she would take a shower in the campground's bathroom and then wait by the fire for her social worker to pick her up and drive her to La Follette High School. She didn't eat breakfast.

At night, Angel would do homework on a picnic bench or in the tent. It was sometimes hard to focus, with all the commotion. It was miserable when it rained. The two would huddle together in the tent they shared with their dog. There was usually food, but not always.

Despite these hardships, the two felt safe. "There were a lot of people that looked out for us because of us being females and us not being homeless ever," Angel says. "They showed us how it works [being homeless]."

The two eventually were approved for a Section 8 housing voucher and got an apartment last November. And they weren't an anomaly at Occupy Madison. Both babies and pregnant women have lived at the camp. One of the attractions of Occupy's camp is that it allows couples to stay together, unlike the shelter system. "The camping thing made me nervous because I had a 15-year-old with me," says Charest. "They make you feel really welcome. It became more or less family."

But that doesn't mean the group always lives in peace and harmony.

An isolated refugee camp

Everybody admits that there have been occasional problems at Occupy Madison.

"Yesterday, I came back to the camp and one of the camp members was openly drinking a beer at the fire pit," says Keith Valiquette, who has lived with Occupy for about a year. "[We] asked him to put his beer away because it's against our camp rules."

The young man started cursing the other campers. Somebody called the police, who arrested him. "We police ourselves," Valiquette says, noting that drinking is allowed only in people's tents and not in the common areas. "We don't want that behavior."

Since the city evicted Occupy from East Washington Avenue, the group has set up camp in a number of places. Many months were spent at Lake Farm Park, but that required moving the camp every two weeks, because the county doesn't allow camping for longer than that in one spot.

Occupy member Bruce Wallbaum estimates the group spent about $3,500 paying for the campsites, the frequent moves and food.

But if last summer took a financial toll, the winter exacted a heavy emotional cost when Dane County agreed to let Occupy stay out at Token Creek.

"This winter at Token Creek was devastating," says Wallbaum. It was expensive and difficult for supporters to make the drive regularly. "For the people that were moved out there, it was just barely enough. It also isolated people terribly. There was community all along the way that was lost at Token Creek because it became an isolated refugee camp."

When the group was forced to leave Token Creek in the middle of March, it set up camp on private land in the 3600 block of Portage Road. It hoped to stay there until mid-April, when the county's campgrounds reopened. But the move brought more grief.

City officials told the property's owner, Koua Vang, that he is breaking zoning regulations and risked thousands in fines. Despite the potential fines, Vang is letting the group stay at the camp until April 16.

Wallbaum is frustrated by the constant hassles from the city. "The idea is not to create an urban camping setting. Urban camping is just a reactionary thing - there's hundreds of people sleeping on the streets," he says. "We're trying to create a space where they're not constantly herding them around the city."

Long-term plan

Valiquette, who is 62, remembers a time when there was a cheaper option for housing, when some people lived in "tar-paper shacks."

"People could get housing with limited or no money," he says. "That's not possible in our society today. There's a cost-of-entry level for housing and existence now."

That barrier is something Occupy Madison would like to lower in Madison. For a while, the group was looking at buying a building on Fordem Avenue to turn into a housing cooperative. But the owner - Koua Vang, the same man who is letting Occupy stay on his vacant property - found another buyer for the property before Occupy could raise the funds. It was a blow to the campers, who had their hearts set on a permanent home.

The group has since shifted gears and is developing plans for an eco-village that would have many components. The idea is to buy a piece of property in the city. Campers at Occupy Madison who work so many hours on group projects could then begin building a "mini-house" there. Mini- or tiny houses generally range from 200 to 400 square feet. Some are roughly the size of a studio apartment and can be built on foundations or as trailers. It's a growing movement, with companies that offer blueprints and prefab construction kits.

But Occupy's vision is more than just housing. Ideally, the land would include an urban garden, which residents could work in for both food and income. There could be chickens, bees and maybe goats. There could be a communal workshop where people could start businesses. The group might also start its own day labor service, giving profits to the workers and funding Occupy projects. And there would be help in getting people job training and steering them to be productive.

"My hope is it could be a good vehicle to get people off the streets and get on with their lives," says Jeremy Evenson, the president of Occupy's board. "We'd look at people's credit rating, criminal history and rental history and try to clean it up."

The group has identified property it might be able to afford, but is keeping mum to prevent early opposition to the purchase.

The idea is not new. Cities in the northwest have established or are attempting to set up similar projects. Residents in Portland, Ore., created Dignity Village in 2001. And projects are under way in Eugene, Ore., and Olympia, Wash.

"I like the idea of this tiny home village that economically allows people to have a small amount of space that meets the public expectation of what shelter is," Wallbaum says. "There's no appetite for people being in a tent, but maybe if there were small houses slightly bigger than a tent, it might be economically feasible."

The village would not be limited to homeless people. To be successful, the group wants to pull people with more resources to create stability and support. The hope is that it will attract people who want a more sustainable, minimalist and cooperative lifestyle.

Phillips says he would like to live in the village himself.

"I'm also tossed around by global capitalism in ways I don't like, and I could also benefit from a radically brilliant community," he says. "I'd like to see a place where people can govern themselves and be producers and support each other without being mediated by silly things like money or government.

"I don't want just homeless people to be able to raise chickens or grow vegetables in a greenhouse or have a composting toilet," he adds. "I want everyone to be able to have that."

Pie in the sky

Occupy Madison is not nave about the obstacles to creating the village. Zoning laws are likely to prevent it or to restrict the density. Neighbors will probably fight it. The mayor has been unsympathetic.

"There is a return on investment here for the city," Wallbaum says. "What seems to bother the mayor is this continued expansion of homelessness on State Street. But if he's frustrated with that, we have to come up with something different."

Even several members are skeptical. "To be honest with you, I don't think [the village] will actually ever happen," says Evenson. "But I hope it happens."

There are also allies on both the Common Council and the Dane County Board and in the community. Groups like Feeding the State Street Family and the Autonomous Solidarity Organization have offered support. The indefatigable Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, sits on Occupy's board.

Wallbaum says that, for the concept to succeed, the group needs to draw the interest of the community at large. Some of Occupy's brightest moments came when people from around the city pitched in, like when they built a hoop-house at its East Washington site. "It created a really good vibe to build projects," he says.

In that way, the seeming impossibility of Occupy Madison's goal might be something that works in its favor.

"When we talk pie in the sky," he says, "there seems to be a lot of energy that comes back."

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