Public testimony on homelessness takes center stage at Board of Estimates

Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, pushes for approving the creation of a downtown public restroom following testimony. 

Image By: Emily Buck

A Friday letter promising administrative action from Mayor Paul Soglin regarding homelessness in Madison drew heated and angry criticism from community members at Monday’s Board of Estimates meeting.

Speakers used the period of open testimony concerning the creation of a public restroom to voice their discontent with Soglin’s allegations on a recent “serious increase in the number of drifters in downtown Madison.” In addition, Soglin called for the disbandment of all outdoor homeless “encampments” in the State Street and Capitol Square area, apart from the City-County Building and existing shelters.

“This is not a homeless issue. It is a matter of public health and safety,” Soglin wrote in the letter, citing a series of incidents last week including narcotic use, littering and public defecation in the North Frances Street area.

But community attendees who spoke argued Soglin’s views were too harsh and not addressing the roots of how to alleviate homelessness in Madison, one possible remedy including the creation of a public restroom.

“We’re criminalizing our homeless neighbors as a solution to the problem,” said East Johnson Street resident Carl Lemke. “It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

The “serious increase” in the numbers of homeless people is due to those relying on shelters running out of allotted days, according to Tenant Resource Center Executive Director Brenda Konkel.

“I was hoping the mayor would be here today,” Konkel said. “For four years, we’ve been advocating for a [daytime shelter] that would help resolve a lot of the issues that we’re facing. If we keep blaming each other and keep pointing fingers at each other, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

The proposal to create a 24-hour, downtown public restroom has been in the works for the past couple of years. The 2014 capital budget included a $300,000 provision for the public restroom’s construction, which carried over into 2015 fiscal allocations.

Besides those living on the streets, the downtown public restroom would serve Farmers’ Market visitors, concert attendees and the late-night bartime crowd, Ad Hoc Downtown Public Restroom Committee representative Sarah Lerner said in her report to the board.

The public restroom proposal, which was ultimately approved by the board, will be taken up by City Council at its May 5 meeting, according to Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4.

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