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Occupy Madison residents plead with council to allow tent-city experiment to continue

Occupy Madison residents and allies don't want the experiment to end.
Credit:Joe Tarr
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Sofia Martinez told the Madison Common Council Tuesday night that she's "houseless," not homeless.

Her home is an old parking lot in the 800 block of East Washington Avenue, where the hoop houses and tents that make up Occupy Madison have been encamped for months. "I come home every day to a wonderful community," Martinez said of the tent-village, which has become home to numerous homeless people.

Martinez was one of dozens of homeless people who spoke to the council, urging it not to evict the group when its permit is up at the end of April.

The Common Council is often subjected to long evenings of public testimony, but as Ald. Brian Solomon noted, this was not a typical group of speakers. "We have several dozen homeless people coming to our meeting and telling us how they feel," Solomon told his colleagues. "That does not happen often."

That disconnect was at times evident, as when one man stumbling over his words, joked: "Sorry, I'm not used to speaking like this. I'm used to going to court here." (The council chambers double as municipal court during the day.)

There were other moments when the speakers didn't understand the decorum of council meetings: Mayor Paul Soglin scolded them on a few occasions, such as when they applauded after people spoke or when one man coughed "bullshit" in response to an alder's comments.

The people came out to speak because Ald. Marsha Rummel had offered a resolution (PDF) honoring the Occupy Madison effort and commending it for a "creative response to the growing poverty and homelessness caused by the economic crisis." The resolution also declared: "The City of Madison thanks the residents of Occupy Madison for showing us a successful model of self-organizing and welcomes them to the ongoing community efforts to address poverty and homelessness."

But the residents of the tent city and their allies don't want the experiment to end. Several told the council they'd found in Occupy Madison a sense of community and empowerment. "Occupy gives us a cause, self-respect and pride," Robert Jones said. "If it was not for Occupy there'd be 60 people wandering around downtown right now. People in Occupy are getting jobs, apartments."

Marcus Robinson, a homeless Madison College student with hopes of transferring to UW-Madison, said he was surprised by how independent the group has become. "I always thought the city or the state would have to fund us. But we're very self-sufficient."

An activist with Occupy Madison, Bruce Wallbaum, prepared statistics about the costs and benefits. Through donations and volunteer efforts Occupy, he said, has provided 5,195 overnight stays, 6,754 meals, 11,689 cups of coffee, 34 cords of wood, and 2,740 square feet of shelter. It has cost the city roughly 1,658 kilowatts of power through a single outlet -- which he estimated at $232. "It's been a magical experiment connecting different parts of the community," he added.

Donna Asif, director of the Madison Homeless Initiative, urged the council to recognize the value in the grassroots efforts of Occupy. "Grassroots efforts rise up when need appears," she said.

Several council members were clearly moved by the demonstration. "I was really impressed to hear some things I heard tonight and I'm embarrassed I haven't been down there yet," said Ald. Lisa Subeck. "I don't know if the model of Occupy is the best one. But I think there's a lot to be taken from it."

But Ald. Bridget Maniaci, whose district includes the encampment, was not comfortable with the resolution. "Is this really a successful model? Really? Tents? That's how we're going to solve the problem?" she asked. "If anything Occupy Madison has showed us how we're messing up as a city."

Solomon, however, said there is no easy solution. "It'd be nice if we could all come together and solve homelessness overnight and get everyone apartments, but that's not going to happen," he said. "We need to be looking at creative, non-traditional ways to solve this problem and this is a creative, non-traditional way that's part of the solution."

Allen Barkoff, an Occupy activist, said outside the meeting that residents are getting nervous about the looming deadline -- April 30 -- to evict the site, which is slated for redevelopment. They don't know where they'll go, he said. Soglin has so far refused to allow an extension or find another location for the tent city.

One speaker, David Williams, reminded Soglin of his activist past, noting that the eviction date is close to the annual Mifflin Street Block Party, when the mayor began to make a splash in city politics. Williams said he saw Soglin -- then a college student -- get dragged from his car by police at the party, which at the time was a protest against the Vietnam War.

Outside the meeting, Williams wondered how Soglin would handle a similar protest conflict. "The shoe's on the other foot. [Soglin] holds the reins of power. Is he going to be the one to send the blue meanies to the encampment?"

Before the council voted on Rummel's resolution, Soglin paused, as though conflicted on whether to speak about the issue. But after a minute, he apparently decided against it. The measure passed on a voice vote.

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