The Occupy Madison homeless encampment spent most of last summer at Dane County campgrounds. It hoped to do the same this year when the parks reopened for camping. But when the campers showed up at Lake Farm Park last week, they faced a new camp rule: Only one tent is allowed per site.
"Last year, we had empathy for the group," explains Darren Marsh, director of Dane County Parks. "We told them that this year, we wanted to make sure everyone was following the same rules."
The county offered Occupy Madison the use of its group campsite, but Occupy member Bruce Wallbaum says it was too remote, especially for those who rely on a nearby bus stop to get around. Occupy instead bought three large tents, enabling them to comply with the one-tent-per-site rule. At the moment, about 14 people are staying at the campground.
Some county supervisors question the rule. "I'm not sure where that policy came from, as it seems to have just surfaced," says Supv. Heidi Wegleitner.
Marsh agrees that some people don't always follow the rule. "People do come through for very temporary stays. Parents may be in one tent, and they'll put the kids in a pup tent," he says. "But our rules are it's one tent per site."
The one-tent (or one-camper) rule was established to minimize impact on the campgrounds, Marsh says. If several tents are set up on site for an extended time, it causes damage.
Occupy members feel they're being picked on as homeless people. "There's definitely been selective enforcement of certain regulations," says Allen Barkoff, an Occupy member. "They did not threaten to evict other campers for having a couple of tents on their sites.
"Granted, the homeless folks have not been perfect," he adds. "When we were having all that rain, they were accused of doing some cooking in [or around the bathhouse]. Some people might have been cooking in there, but it was raining, all day and all night."
Wegleitner says she's concerned about the perception of selective enforcement. "I've heard the concern that having a group of homeless people there could deter other people from using the campground. If that is a common perception, it would be a concern that they're making it more difficult for homeless people to stay there."
Last year, Wegleitner proposed allowing Occupy and other homeless people to stay at county campgrounds longer than two weeks, but the proposal failed. She says she'll look at making changes to county rules again this year.
"They're there because they don't have any other options," she says. "If anything, we should be making their life easier, not more difficult."
Occupy member Brenda Konkel estimates on her blog that the group will have to pay about $9,000 to stay at the campsites over the next six and a half months. Barkoff doesn't know if the group has the money for the sites or the energy to move frequently: "I'm not sure there's the appetite to do what we did last summer again.
"All this...harassment by the county and at other times the city is really putting a drain on our abilities to find a solution to homelessness," he adds. "It's a major distraction on our focus and energy."