Residents and activists are resisting the City’s efforts to evict an encampment at Reindahl Park.
Header photo: A white flag with the words “Land Back” flipped off City officials that arrived the morning of May 10 to enforce an eviction order at the Reindahl Park homeless encampment. Following community protests, Madison’s Parks Superintendent recently indicated that there is no plan to forcibly remove those remaining at Reindahl, although some residents have already left the encampment. Photos by Oona Mackesey-Green.
When the City of Madison issued an eviction notice for a homeless encampment at the far East Side’s Reindahl Park in April, it was both familiar and frustrating to resident James DeGray. DeGray moved to Reindahl after the City closed down an encampment at McPike Park in late February, evicting the residents of what people had dubbed “Tent City.” He spent two weeks contacting organizations and individuals, trying to confirm whether he could move to Reindahl, a City-approved temporary permissible encampment (TPE) site. “I didn’t want to move to this park if they thought, thought, I might have reason to get kicked out of here within six months, because I’m trying to get stable to start my own business,” says DeGray.
The City of Madison moved forward with the eviction despite resistance from some Alders, community advocates, and residents at the encampment. Revoking approval for camping at Reindahl leaves a Starkweather Creek site off of Milwaukee Street—a site that advocates have described as inadequate and inaccessible—as the only City-approved TPE, a bureaucratic designation officials have sparingly used to accommodate camps of homeless people. DeGray and others who have chosen to stay at Reindahl have not been forced to leave yet, and it is uncertain how or when the City will enforce the eviction order. In a recent update, the Madison Parks Superintendent said there is no plan to forcibly remove campers from the park.
The order took effect May 10, nearly a year to the day after Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s emergency order authorizing temporary encampments in accordance with ongoing CDC guidelines. The emergency order included contingencies, though. The Mayor retained the ability to revoke approval of any TPE for various reasons, including opposition from neighbors or if the encampment makes the site unavailable or unsafe for the area’s “intended public uses.” Less than a week earlier, the Madison Common Council voted down a proposed homeless shelter barely a mile away from Reindahl Park, in part in response to complaints from neighboring homeowners and businesses. The Mayor’s office issued a brief but pointed statement criticizing the Council vote. But complaints and requests from neighbors were also justifications used to shut down the Reindahl encampment.
The encampment is spread along a short stretch of the bike path through Reindahl Park, with tents spaced apart from each other in the shade and meager privacy offered by a grove of trees. Even with community gardens, a basketball court, tennis court, soccer fields, cricket field, splash park, playground, and shelter, the 90-acre park still feels spacious.
People bike and jog through the park regularly, DeGray says. There have also been at least three people in the neighborhood who approached him directly to welcome him. “I don’t understand where the pushback is except from the City,” says DeGray. “If there’s a bunch of people who are annoyed, please show me who they are so maybe I can make things right with them.”
Jim O’Keefe, Director of Madison’s Community Development Division, said during a phone interview, “The idea here is to be able to reactivate that park and resume the programming that has been a mainstay of that park.” O’Keefe cited the bike path, community garden, and a park shelter a short distance from the encampment that is already receiving requests for graduation parties and family reunions.
Pushback from Alders and grassroots activists
A small group gathered at Reindahl Park on Sunday, May 9—the day before the eviction was scheduled—to make signs in protest. The sign-making event was public, but most of those who turned up had been volunteering at the encampment and other sites for weeks, months or years.
Evy Gildrie-Voyles got connected to volunteering at the encampment through a friend. Gildrie-Voyles showed up that afternoon to make a sign. It was Mother’s Day, Gildrie-Voyles pointed out, while criticizing the argument that the encampment prevents families from using the park. “That kind of excuse makes me angry,” said Gildrie-Voyles. “It’s using families to hurt other people, and I resent that. My kids can handle seeing an encampment. There’s nothing dangerous here.”
Alder Juliana Bennett, who represents downtown District 8, arrived at the sign-making event bearing two boxes of pizza. At the Common Council’s last meeting, on May 4, Bennett introduced a resolution to continue authorizing the use of public parks as TPEs and to prohibit the eviction of the encampment at Reindahl. The resolution is on the Council’s May 18 agenda.
As of Tuesday, May 11, O’Keefe did not anticipate the resolution changing the City’s eviction at Reindahl, though. O’Keefe questioned whether the Council had authority to authorize TPEs or to prohibit their closure. “The foundation for the temporary permissible encampments exists within a mayoral executive order that was issued last year,” says O’Keefe. “It’s not at all clear to me what effect this resolution would have.”
In a recent phone interview, Bennett said that there would be some changes to the resolution’s language. “I will be calling for staff to find or identify two to three more permissible locations for encampments that can provide a more sustainable solution in the long term,” Bennett says. Bennett pointed to the Mayor’s power to act on this issue: “The Mayor has the authority to do more for homeless people than is already being done. I would really call on Mayor Satya to take further action to help our community members find more options other than what are already presented.”
What next steps the City might take towards eviction at Reindahl are still uncertain. “We’re trying to gain the cooperation of the few remaining campers there,” O’Keefe says. The day before the eviction order was to take effect, someone living in the encampment died of an overdose. “There was a tragedy over the weekend. We want to give people an opportunity to deal with that and don’t want to be heavy-handed,” says O’Keefe.
The loss of a community member to an overdose two days before the eviction went into effect didn’t surprise DeGray. “That sort of thing is typical when you try to evict people who already have nothing,” he says. “People decide to take what they’ve got and go and buy as much alcohol or whatever it is and drink themselves to death or put themselves in the hospital.”
The City needs to listen, says Red, a community member who has been involved with outreach to unhoused people since 2011. “And treat people as people, not homeless. Not chronically homeless. They’re a person. They’re a human being. They too deserve a way of life. And with our capitalistic ways, there is absolutely no way that that’s going to happen, unless we start changing things.”
Another sign made during the May 9 event read: “One piece of parkland out of all this. Your inconvenience during times like these does not warrant or justify depriving people of place or peace.”
“The notion that anybody would be kicked out of the semblance of a home that they have built for themselves in this pandemic, by virtue of, so someone can frolic in the fucking grass, I mean, it’s ghoulish,” says Rusty, another community member who showed up to Reindahl during the sign-making event. Most of the community members at the event that afternoon were there as individuals and chose to share only a first name, including Rusty.
“The City is continuing to try to hide the fact that they have a chronic homeless issue in the Dane County and Madison area. And they keep moving people to move people so it’s not an eyesore. And we’ve lost people to that,” says Red.
The remaining City-approved TPE at Starkweather Park, where residents at Reindahl are being asked to move, is a narrow plot of land between a family farm and an Amazon distribution center on Milwaukee Street. To reach it, you have to walk, bike or drive down Milwaukee Street—there is no sidewalk—or cut through the Amazon parking lot. The City installed a gravel access road but blocked the entrance, preventing vehicles from accessing the site.
It’s easy to believe that the site could have been chosen to keep an encampment invisible. In contrast to Reindahl and McPike Parks, the tents at Starkweather are entirely hidden from public view. The only place to camp along the access road is on high ground among trees and undergrowth. A portable toilet and handwashing station stand solitary at the end of the gravel road. There is no easily spotted communal area, as there is at Reindahl. There is no set-up for service providers and volunteers to gather with residents or drop-off donations.
“It’s really frustrating that this is being proposed as a solution because it’s not a solution, it’s an insult,” says Bennett.
“It’s not a park. It’s just an overgrown piece of land. It’s secluded, there’s no lighting. It’s dangerous,” says Alder Yannette Figueroa Cole, who represents District 10 on Madison’s West Side, in a recent phone interview. Figueroa Cole stopped by the Reindahl Park encampment on May 9. Figueroa Cole was prepared to support the move to the Starkweather Creek location until seeing the site firsthand.
“It’s not that nice there,” says Ulysses Williams, Co-Chair of the City-County Homeless Issues Committee. “The community here, they’re self-governed. If there’s a problem, they’ll handle it. They have a community [culture]. Here, they’ll help each other. At Starkweather Creek, it’s everyone for himself.”
Dispersing the encampment at Reindahl will not only break up the community, but will damage residents’ trust and relationships with service providers as well, says Figueroa Cole: “Building trust with this community doesn’t take a day or two days, sometimes it takes years.”
O’Keefe says the City plans to keep the Starkweather site open with handwashing stations, trash receptacles, and portable toilets until October 31. “We’re trying to provide some stability and predictability with respect to that location using that October 31 date,” says O’Keefe.
But there is a possibility that the Starkweather site could also be shut down before October. “If the behaviors of people who are using the facility became disruptive or illegal,” says O’Keefe, “then we may revisit that issue.”
The City currently has no plans for an authorized encampment over the winter.
“I want to push back on the notion that the City actively moved people from McPike to Reindahl and now are asking them to leave again just a short time later,” says O’Keefe. “We probably didn’t do a good enough job of conveying to outreach staff that they should not encourage people to move to Reindahl, because I think it was becoming clear to us even in those earlier months this year that the situation at Reindahl would also be changing.” O’Keefe says there were already plans from the Madison Parks Department to “reactivate” that park, and growing impatience from other park users.
“The whole notion of temporary permissible encampments was really borne out of the pandemic,” says O’Keefe. The CDC recommended (and continues to recommend) avoiding disrupting encampments, since the disruption could potentially increase the spread of COVID-19. But the need for sanctioned encampments has waned as vaccination rates increase, says O’Keefe: “This was never intended to be an ongoing or a permanent solution. Or a strategy that the City would have this enduring support for camping outdoors.”
O’Keefe expressed a concern that establishing a permanent encampment might encourage people to live outdoors rather than using alternatives, like shelters. And while O’Keefe noted that overnight shelters have become more accessible during the pandemic as restrictions related to sobriety requirements and the number of days someone can stay overnight have been loosened or lifted, shelters are still not an option that works for everyone, or the option that they would choose.
DeGray worries about potential exposure to COVID-19 in shelters, among other concerns. “I have PTSD,” says DeGray. “I don’t like confined spaces especially with a lot of other people. I like sunshine, grass, and trees. I’d rather bird poop than an angry neighbor that I can’t get rid of.”
The situation highlights Madison’s struggle to support unhoused people and address the city’s lack of affordable housing. Homelessness has increased during the pandemic while housing prices continue to skyrocket. Despite a federal eviction moratorium that is now under threat, evictions in Wisconsin have continued throughout the pandemic.
And systemic housing issues intersect with racism in Madison with devastating results. There is a long history of racism in Madison when it comes to housing access. In 2017, Madison’s Biennial Housing Report found that an individual in a family was 27 times more likely to be homeless if Black rather than white, 15 times more likely if American Indian, 10 times more likely if multiracial and seven times more likely if Hispanic/Latino.
Recently, Dane County launched a regional housing study and Mayor Rhodes-Conway announced a “Housing Forward” plan to address Madison’s housing crisis. But these issues are systemic, and those most impacted do not always reap long-term benefits of proposed solutions. Olivia Williams, Executive Director of Madison Area Community Land Trust, recently wrote for Tone Madison that an “upzoning” proposal included in the City’s plan could potentially hurt low-income renters.
The Capital Times described a “screaming confrontation” between homeless advocates and City staff at Reindahl Park the morning that the eviction order was to take effect. Advocates expressed anger and frustration, wrote Cap Times reporter Nicholas Garton, that despite the funding poured into organizations and services, there is still not enough affordable housing, and—also noting Mayor Rhodes-Conway’s absence that morning—that volunteers continue to be the ones showing up to support people at encampments like Reindahl.
While the City and County scramble to find imperfect solutions to an urgent problem, it is people struggling to find or keep housing that are caught in the middle.
DeGray says that he wants people to know “That in general, I feel the entire way this [eviction] is being approached is wrong, because they’re trying to make it illegal to be a person in public. They’re trying to make it where it’s somehow unlawful, criminal of you to be in public, just because you have nowhere to go.”
Housing is the long-term solution, says Figueroa Cole. Figueroa Cole has been volunteering at downtown homeless resource center The Beacon since it opened, and said that she did plenty of intakes with people who had jobs but couldn’t afford housing. “One of the things that really bothered me about the shelter idea was to have a bigger shelter,” says Figueroa Cole. “The goal here should not be to make a bigger shelter. The goal here should be not to have people in shelters. Why should we make something bigger and better when it’s something we want less of?” The focus should be getting people out of those situations and keeping them housed. The federal funding available in response to COVID-19 is a chance to invest in long term solutions, says Figueroa Cole.
DeGray also brought up the resources spent on unhoused people. “The money is getting spent, it’s just not getting spent on the right things,” says DeGray. Although there are plenty of rental assistance programs, very few of them will help you purchase a home, says DeGray, and the few that will help with mortgage assistance only step in once you’re already in a financial crisis. The system is not set up to help those like DeGray, who might be interested in homeownership but are unable to access it.
The business that DeGray has been working on for the last two years involves building tiny houses. But DeGray was met by skepticism when he mentioned his business plan to other people living in encampments. They were interested in housing, but didn’t trust that they wouldn’t have to give up rights to get it. “They don’t want another program. They feel burned out, everyone has abandoned them, whatever,” says DeGray. “That’s a big part of why a lot of us are out here. We want to do our thing and we don’t want a bunch of other crazy crap.”
What’s next at Reindahl
The City-County Homeless Issues Committee meets this Monday, May 17. The agenda includes TPE updates from Madison’s Community Development Division as well as Bennett’s resolution to prohibit the eviction at Reindahl. At its last meeting May 3, the committee voted unanimously to request that the Mayor extend the closing of Reindahl by at least 30 days. The request went unheeded. Co-chair Ulysses Williams noted that “All [the committee] can do is advise. That’s all we can do. We just don’t have any kind of power.”
Figueroa Cole expressed appreciation for the City staff that have been working on this issue. “But for the City as a whole,” says Figueroa Cole, “we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back for how much we’ve done for this population. The only reason we’re doing this is because the pandemic is forcing this issue to the top of the list, but this issue has always been there. It’s just never been prioritized, it has always been taken care of by nonprofits.”
We’re talking about 10 people at Reindahl Park, says Figueroa Cole, out of Madison’s population of about 250,000. “What does that say of us as a city that we cannot fix that small number? We can’t impact that small number of lives and make it better. If we were to focus on lifting these people up, by doing so we’d destress so many other agencies. The police, neighborhoods, so many other nonprofit organizations.” That would in turn free up resources, says Figueroa Cole. “It would impact all of us in a positive way if we just manage the way that we respond to the people that need us the most. Look at the numbers and ask yourself really, why can’t we make this work?”
In a Facebook post, Community Action Against Reindahl Eviction asked people to contact the City-County Homeless Issues Committee ([email protected]) and Common Council ([email protected]) in support of Bennett’s resolution.
Want to help? Red noted that it’s best to ask what’s needed, rather than making assumptions and dropping off food or clothing that might not be wanted. Here are a few local groups that accept donations: Friends of State Street Family, The Beacon, Occupy Madison, Catalyst for Change.