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Occupy Madison houses the homeless
But the city refuses to renew its permit
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Occupy Madison
Occupy Madison
Credit:Joe Tarr

Occupy Madison started as a protest in solidarity with other Occupy movements around the country, drawing attention to economic inequality and demanding more for ordinary Americans.

The protest shantytown located on East Washington Avenue ended up providing a response to one of the issues it was drawing attention to: homelessness.

Located at the former Don Miller auto dealership, the tent community has become home to roughly 40 homeless people, organizers say, though some nights 80 people have slept here.

"A hoop house isn't exactly a Hilton Hotel, but it's better than freezing to death in a back alley," says Dave Peters, a homeless man who has lived at the site since last October. Peters says he's recruited roughly a dozen other homeless people to join him there.

The hoop houses and tents at the site are set up on wooden pallets. There's also a communal kitchen and a wood-burning stove where people cook and stay warm. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden, Peters says. Quiet hours are from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., though he admits, "That's the one that's probably violated the most."

The tent city will end April 30, when Mayor Paul Soglin and the city let the group's protest permit expire. Soglin says he won't renew the permit on another site.

Currently owned by the city, the site is being redeveloped with a mix of proposed housing, office and retail uses.

The group wants the city to allow it to set up somewhere else. "We're providing a homeless shelter and a place for political activism at no charge to the city," says Peters, who adds that he's become involved in the protests against the state mining bill since living there.

Luca Clemente, a UW graduate student who got involved as a protester, says he was surprised by how engaged the homeless people became at the site. "It shows that homelessness is not being addressed here."

His wife, Trina Clemente, says that the tent city has had relatively few problems because it is run democratically, with the homeless given a vote on how things go. "Self-determination gives people a say," she says. "When you have an administrator who is seen as the 'boss,' people abdicate authority."

While the members might be exaggerating the tent city as an anarchist utopia, it's easy to see the encampment's benefits. Homeless shelters cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to run, but with no funds from the city, this group has created a safe place for the homeless to sleep and offered food to eat. The only city resources being used are regular trash pickup and a single electrical outlet. There have been some police calls to the site, but most have been to the neighboring homeless day shelter, which opened in December.

But Mayor Paul Soglin says there's no chance the group will be given a permit for another site. "Everyone knew from day one, when we made the 800 block available, that when April 30 came, we would not renew the permit," he says. "It's a development site."

Asked about criticism that the city isn't doing enough to help the homeless, Soglin, who ran on a platform of helping the poor, says, "This city makes a heroic effort, far beyond what you see in Wisconsin and in other communities, to help the homeless. We cannot do everything. We do not have the capacity to solve the homeless problem in the state of Wisconsin."

Trina Clemente says that's not good enough. Noting the mayor's roots as a campus protester, she says, "The mayor has the power and ability to do something. I guess his activism has always been toward the college students and the white middle class. That must be where his sympathies end."

Luca Clemente says he doesn't know what will happen at the end of April, but adds, "Whatever happens will be decided democratically."

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