The City-County Building
When I was in fifth grade, I got to go on a field trip to the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Looking up in the Rotunda filled me with awe and joy. I just stared, mouth agape, for a good five minutes before my teacher hurried me along.
Kids aren't the only ones to feel that sense of wonder. I took my college roommate from Arizona there; he had been unimpressed with most of Madison's architecture, but then got that same look on his face that I had when I was 10.
Even Megadeth's Dave Mustaine can vouch that it is a "cool building."
— Dave Mustaine (@DaveMustaine) November 24, 2013
No one has ever felt awe or wonder looking at the City-County Building. No one ever stops in the middle of paying a speeding ticket to gaze up at the building's majestic gray ceiling tiles. No one has ever registered to vote and then decided to just spend the afternoon hanging out in the hallways for fun. On that day in 2027 when marriage equality finally comes to Wisconsin, the sole drawback will be that more couples will have spend time in that fluorescent void.
You only go to the City-County Building if you have to -- or if you have no place else to go. That's why Mayor Soglin'sproposal to hire a security guard to kick out the homeless who have used the building as a de-facto day shelter seems particularly cruel.
When his proposal didn't build much steam, Soglin sent out an email Tuesday that included play-by-play commentary of a homeless scuffle and this rather scathing passage.
The mayor wrote:
Therapy, treatment, and counseling, with constant supervision are needed for a significant number of people who hang out in this building and the surrounding area. No number of shelters or amount of money is going to address their needs unless it is focused on treatment for mental health and substance abuse matters. Frankly I see no sense in spending public money for buildings, shelter, day centers, or housing for individuals who will either refuse to use them or will be banned from them for behavior reasons.
I don't disagree that our mental health and substance abuse treatment options need significant improvement. It is also a good thing that Soglin reminds us that there are people who will get kicked out of shelters. Still, this comes off as really reactionary. Don't the people who don't need treatment need a place to go? It's dehumanizing to treat the homeless population as a hive mind, assuming all have the same issues and needs.
Luckily, the reactions of other city and county employees weren't so over the top. Their comments were collected so they could be shared at Monday's City-County Liaison Committee meeting. They were refreshingly honest, sympathetic but frustrated.
Two of the comments stuck out at me. This first one from Dave:
I am not insensitive to the plight of the homeless. I do volunteer work for non-profit organizations that aid poor and homeless individuals and families. There should be a better way to resolve this issue than simply letting these folks loiter all day in the CCB. This is my workplace and I feel I have legitimate health and safety concerns due to what has become their permanent presence.
Another one is from Dan:
[We] need to be darned careful about implementing any policy that constrains the public from full access to its government... We are mere stewards of a public resource -- it ain't about us.
I think both Dave and Dan make good points that are not mutually exclusive.
The City-County Building is not a day shelter; it is merely the best option available at the moment. We've failed as a city and as a county to provide adequate shelter for the homeless from the extremes of Wisconsin's weather. Security guards and facility bans aren't going to change that.
The homeless population will move on to another space where they can feel relatively safe downtown, where the cycle will begin anew. A day shelter, in the works for next year, is a key component of a complex long-term solution, and maybe Madison and Dane County officials can finally address the issue now that the "problem" is on their doorstep.
The lockdowns and arrests at the Capitol have tarnished that awe-inspiring rotunda for me, possibly forever. If our local officials can find a place for homeless folks to go, that drab City-County Building might start inspiring a little awe of its own.