Long-term failures in housing and social services surround the pandemic-era encampment.
I visited Tent City, the name some people used for the homeless encampment in McPike Park, on February 20, a week before the city would close that section of the park to the public. Tents and abandoned campsites dotted the winding walking path.
I had heard that only a few people remained in Tent City after the intense February cold snap. Even the most dedicated campers had moved to hotel rooms the City of Madison and Dane County paid for with temporary CARES Act funds. According to Jim O’Keefe, the city of Madison’s Director of Community Development, February would be the best time to clear out the camp to affect the least amount of campers.
I tripped on piles of frozen clothes and scattered, charred wood. I looked into some of the abandoned shelters, where I found mattresses, cups and little signs of domestic life, like appliances, tables and chairs. One campsite was decorated with glass bottles and another was scrawled with poetry. I was careful where I stepped because I heard there were used needles buried beneath the snow.
Smoke floated out of a stove-pipe protruding from the largest structure in the encampment. It was a shanty-house made out of wooden pallets, tarps, and other scraps of plastic. I called out to see if anyone was inside. A man in his 40s named Tyron came out, and seemed happy to give me a tour of the camp. Tyron lived in Madison for the last few years, and volunteered his time working as a liaison between mental health service providers and the homeless community members he knew well.
Tyron told me he preferred living outside because high rents in Madison ate up his entire Supplemental Security Income check every month. Before he heard about Tent City by word-of-mouth, he’d been living on State Street, in the nooks and crannies between the shops.
“I like it here because of the people,” Tyron said. “We consider ourselves one big camp. I don’t know the logistics of why we aren’t allowed to stay. All I know is I’m homeless. Where else am I supposed to be?”
Tyron showed me around inside his big hut. He slept near a working wood-burning oven, with ample space to relax and store supplies. It was warm inside the hut, and he patched up a leak in the roof while we talked. He told me that Tent City was a rough place for women, and that people with bad intentions came there to take advantage of the vulnerable.
We went back outside and two men approached us and asked how Tyron was doing. Tyron told them he was moving to Reindahl Park, a park close to the Dane County Airport where the city had decided to relocate some of the McPike campers.
“Don’t get stabbed,” one of the men said, referring to a murder that had happened at Reindahl months ago.
I said goodbye to Tyron and told him I’d like to talk to him again.
When I interviewed Annie Kraus of the Social Justice Center later that week, I asked her what was the best way to get back in contact with Tyron. She told me Tyron had died in Tent City, likely of an overdose. His body had been found in the big hut and his friends and case worker had confirmed to Kraus that Tyron had passed on.
“Tyron’s life and death are an example of the failure of all these systems: criminal justice, mental health and health care, and housing and homeless services,” Kraus says. “He had a lot to say, and Madison should listen.”
I visited Tent City again on February 28, the day the camp officially closed. A fence already funneled movement in and out of the park through two small sections of the path. The street was busy with utility vehicles and workers contracted to assist the cleanup. A park ranger walked around making sure everyone in the park not working on the clean-up was on their way out.
A Dumpster sat on one of the hills. Young men in protective suits picked at the wooden pallets, tarps, soiled clothing, mattresses, and fire extinguishers and tossed them away.
The little campsites outlined with makeshift fencing and decorated with bottles were gone. Tyron’s hut was already gone.
The next day, Tent City completely disappeared. All that remained were some muddy spots where the grass was worn away, and the fence.
City of Madison officials tacitly allowed people to camp at McPike Park during the worst months of the pandemic, roughly June to February. After months of quarantine and protests, it probably didn’t surprise anyone that many more Madisonians than usual would face the prospect of living outdoors.
I reported on the surge in need for rental resources back in July, when activists working against a rise in evictions told me there had been a massive increase in applications for eviction prevention resources. Right now, for the round of federal, state and county rental assistance called CORE administered in Madison by the Tenant Resource Center, there are at least 8,000 outstanding requests for back rent. In some cases, tenants report owing their landlords thousands of dollars.
Kraus says many homeless people she worked with at Tent City were experiencing homelessness for the first time. The Social Justice Center where Kraus works serves homeless community members in an ad-hoc way when someone shows up at the SJC door, and McPike Park is just around the block. Kraus also served informally in the camp settling disputes between campers, and coordinating volunteers.
Activists like Kraus and politicians like District 6 Alder Marsha Rummel, whose district contains McPike park, argue that one reason Tent City grew so fast was Madison’s lack of sufficient low-income and extremely-low-income housing, like the small amount of single-room occupancy rooms available for low-income people at the YWCA downtown.
It isn’t clear why small studios, one-bedrooms, and even options like individual room rentals for extremely-low-income people are lacking in the downtown area. It seems that the business of extremely-low-income housing just isn’t very profitable. Rummel blames bank lenders who put too many stipulations on loans set aside for housing development.
Jim O’Keefe argues that the city is making good on promises to expand this extremely-low-income housing stock, citing large-scale developments like the Salvation Army’s planned expansion at the intersection of East Mifflin and Blount Streets. But developments like those take years, and the pandemic and the economic fallout came on too quickly for the city’s perennially in-the-works homelessness infrastructure.
“The pandemic exposed what those of us working in this realm have long known,” O’Keefe says. “The physical facilities used in this community to serve the homeless population were inadequate and have been for many years.”
Before the pandemic, the city relied on downtown church basements to house homeless men, and the Salvation Army for women and families. Those facilities were not built to serve homeless populations, and weren’t able to allow for social distancing. The city has struggled in recent years to select a site for further developments targeting homelessness. One currently active shelter spot, at the Fleet Building on First Street, faces an uncertain future. The city is currently planning to build a shelter near East Towne Mall, which has recently run up against a one-two punch of gentrification and NIMBYism, thanks to the developers of a proposed luxury apartment complex.
Tent City developed despite local policymakers’ efforts to create other options for people facing housing insecurity. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway signed an emergency order in May 2020 that allows city staff to designate certain sites as “temporary permissible encampments,” or TPEs. This policy was supposed to temporarily decriminalize outdoor camping in specific areas. The only problem was that TPEs would only be allowed on city property, and had to be 500 feet away from any residential property.
According to O’Keefe, his department categorically denied many applications for TPEs, giving legal status to only a handful of camps scattered far away from downtown.
Even though no one at McPike was living in an official TPE, the park ended up operating like one. Crucially, police didn’t penalize people for setting up tents or drinking alcohol there. Multiple sources told me police officers actually encouraged people to set up at McPike.
The traditional sites for homeless people—places like churches, the Beacon and the Salvation Army—also relaxed their strict rules for the pandemic, suspending policies that turned away inebriated individuals and removing the cap on the number of days an individual could make use of their shelters.
Even with the relaxed rules, shelters didn’t work for everyone. Kraus explains that shelters can be traumatizing for people experiencing chronic homelessness, even in the best cases. A person you have a restraining order against might have a room in the same shelter as you, or, if you are struggling with a substance use problem, you might not want to be around your friend who you know might sell you heroin. On top of this, according to Kraus, many people experiencing homelessness suffer from PTSD, which can make enclosed, indoor spaces unbearable.
For these reasons, while Madison’s homeless resources were arguably overtaxed before the pandemic, the network of shelters and resources were not always running at capacity even as Tent City grew to accommodate 40 to 60 people a night and winter loomed.
There are many success stories that come out of the situation at McPike. Several Tent City campers transitioned into Occupy Madison’s the Tiny Home project, and Black Umbrella, a local social justice group organized amid last summer’s protests, also helped move at least four men into a temporary transitional rental home downtown.
Long-time-operating homelessness aid groups like Sankofa Behavioral & Community Health and Catholic Charities of Madison worked to connect about 100 people living in McPike to more sustainable living situations or resources they needed to get themselves back on their feet.
While the pandemic probably caused a surge in homelessness, there was also a surge in interest in tackling the multifaceted issues that create homelessness. Mutual aid groups and donations to them exploded. As the protests ended, Black Umbrella moved its “feeding the masses” initiative from the Capitol to Tent City.
“A lot of people who were stuck in their privilege were made aware of these problems by the protests,” says Darin Hicks, a leader in Black Umbrella.
As Tent City grew, it became an ideal location to provide the homeless population there with much-needed aid and transitional services. At the same time, it became an ideal location for predatory drug dealers. According to Kraus, a few women were pressured into sexual relationships at the park, and some people participated in consensual sex work.
Neighbors began noticing a near-constant smell of firewood, which made them uneasy at a time when some people thought that weaker lungs would make one susceptible to COVID.
Eventually, well-meaning Madisonians donated too much stuff, which piled up and went unused. In a February post on the Social Justice Center’s blog, Kraus asked generous people interested in helping out at McPike to stop dropping off large piles of clothes and food, which went to waste when left unattended.
One neighbor who lives near McPike told me a man had walked around one day during the summer with a shopping cart of fresh meat, and dumped it at the train tracks. The meat rotted, and attracted rats.
Jack Kear, who serves as a Marquette Neighborhood Association Board Member, told me he first noticed the campsites and thought little of it, until the park became extremely active throughout the day and night. For months, Kear says, neighbors heard loud arguments, and the police were called to the park frequently by both neighbors and campers. However, Kraus says that Madison police made very few arrests in the park.
“It has been incredibly unsafe for many people who stayed in tents at the park,” Kraus says. “Tents have caught on fire. People have sold weapons and drugs. The only problem is that this kind of crime would just be happening elsewhere if it wasn’t happening at McPike.”
On February 4 the city announced the end of its look-the-other-way policy with papers taped to the park bathroom and on the lampposts. This date had been worked on between city committees and service providers and made public far in advance of the March 1 date to ensure no one would be surprised.
One possibility Madison’s policymakers and activists might consider is the creation of outdoor camping sites downtown. Tent City seems to me to prove that Madison needs a space where people can live for a while unharassed, close to the outreach services that keep them sustained, with the benefit of being connected to the city’s regular sanitation and security services. Campers might pay a nominal fee. Activists like Kraus point to the apparent success of these legally sanctioned camping sites in cities like Denver.
Whatever the city, county, and local service agencies do for homeless people after the pandemic, it’s a plain fact that Madison doesn’t have enough low-income housing. Madison also lacks alternatives for people who can’t make do in a shelter, but who aren’t ready to afford a studio apartment.
Madison has made some progress on serving homeless populations since former Mayor Paul Soglin berated and harassed homeless people downtown, and right-wing kook Dave Blaska wrote a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal advocating a “vagrancy court.” But Madison has made only slow progress towards widespread housing security, and the pandemic threw that into sharp relief . Every Madisonian who argued against building that men’s shelter in their neighborhood, or the expansion of other homeless resources, contributed to this dire situation and the events of the past year are an indictment of their short-sightedness.
In addition, the current opposition facing city plans for the potential shelter near East Towne Mall needs to end. Neighbors of future homeless facilities who perceive these developments as dangerous or unsightly need to accept responsibility for the ways their city has failed to serve its low-income and homeless citizens, and compromise.
But the one silver lining of the extreme instability people have faced during the pandemic is that it can change Madison’s homelessness conversation going forward.
“I have a sense that policymakers and elected officials understand that we cannot go back to where we were,” O’Keefe says.