By Edward Kuharski
[ Note about the title: Mayor Soglin has been reported to have used the phrase “Greyhound therapy,” an unsubtle euphemism for putting unwanted people on a bus to another city, in a meeting in the County Executive’s office. It is a distasteful phrase but is consistent with other statements the Mayor has made claiming that serving homeless residents is not the responsibility of the city, because some people come here “from Chicago” to take advantage of our services and quality of life. He apparently has forgotten that he is one of those residents of Chicago who did just that in his youth.]
UPDATE: Greyhound Therapy in the Mayor’s 2013 city budget? Yes indeed! This item turned up in Soglin’s proposed budget for 2013: $25,000 for Helping Hand Homeward – From the Miscellaneous budget: (f) This funding is to assist persons without sufficient funding so that they can go home. That’s right; A program to send people who have no home, HOME.
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It was a typical Wednesday morning at the top of State Street here in the heart of liberal Madison, WI. Businesses were getting ready to open. People were bustling by. And a contingent of people who happen to call the sidewalks home had stirred from their bedrolls and begun their routine of getting through the day. As was their usual practice, seven of these street residents had neatly stowed what remained of their earthly possessions discreetly behind the little stage area in Veteran’s Plaza before going about their business. Also as usual, a compatriot served as monitor to keep an eye on their things while they were off on their morning errands. Three of them had gone to Meriter Hospital’s Outpatient Center, where one was to undergo diagnostic procedures. His two companions were there to help him after the procedures were done, as it involved sedation. He would need help and protection after discharge and of course had no place other than the street to do that.
At about 9:30, the garbage truck that services State Street rolled up and city workers began to toss the backpacks, sleeping bags and carry-on luggage into the maw of the truck. The operator began to activate the compactor. A woman, the designated guardian of these parcels containing seven people’s only worldly possessions, came running up and jumped on the back of the truck, pleading with the operator to stop. As he had been ordered by Officer Jeff Pharo, the beat cop assigned to State Street, he finished the job and drove away, bound for the Streets Department Transfer Station several miles away, a large walled compound for holding collected waste before being hauled to the county landfill.
Lance Myers, an advocate for homeless people, sounded the alarm a few hours after the incident in an email message to other advocates, who began to share a call to action to contact public officials in protest of the seizure. Apparently the police had second thoughts about the action, as they dispatched officers to the Transfer Station with orders to retrieve the seized items. It is a measure of city officials’ recognition of their grave error that they prevailed on Transfer Station Staff to dig for the items, something that has never occurred before in the history of the transfer station.
By early afternoon, Chief Wray had responded to an inquiry from Brenda Konkel (Director, Tenant Resource Center) with a “clarification” of what had transpired (read here). An “incident report” was posted with somewhat different information. A call to MPD dispatch yielded another version, this one claiming the “collected” items hadn’t gone to the garbage heap, but had been stored for safekeeping at the Mall/Concourse maintenance facility – a claim that many already knew to be untrue. MPD media flak Joel DeSpain gave interviews justifying the action to several papers (Badger Herald story here), repeating the claims that the owners were unknown, claims of abandonment and hazardous contents, and worst, claims of alcohol being found. The owners of the bags are especially adamant that this last claim is entirely false.
A rally was organized for Thursday afternoon on the steps of the City-County Building. Mayor Soglin and Chief Wray were invited to come meet the people who had had their possessions taken. While they did not respond to the invitation, about 50 others did attend the rally. A series of people spoke. There was understandable anger expressed, but the dominant tone throughout was more about the sense of violation and betrayal at the hands of those whose mission is said to be to “protect and serve.” (Daily Cardinal story here) At its conclusion about 20 people moved up to the mayor’s office to ask again to speak to him. He had been “in a meeting” during the rally, but now was “not in.” Several people spoke to mayoral staff. As of this writing, the mayor has not responded to requests to speak with his homeless constituents or their advocates.
Craig, the homeless advocate who organized the rally, contacted the MPD to ask when the retrieved belongings would be returned to their owners. They said to come to the Mall/Concourse maintenance facility the next morning (Friday) at 8:30 am. Several people, myself included, met the group at Veteran’s Plaza and walked with them to the site. Staff said they were instructed to wait until police officers arrived to make sure people only took what was theirs. After about 30 minutes, the officers, who came from the North Precinct even though we were one block from MPD headquarters, arrived. A stake-sided truck was brought out to a loading bay and people were invited to identify and take their belongings.
As the city worker brought each item to the open back of the truck we could see that the bags had indeed been crushed, mixed with garbage and buried in the trash pile at the Transfer Station. The smell and encrusted dirt confirmed this. People were given latex gloves so they could safely handle the contaminated items. Masks or respirators would have been appropriate, but none were available. One person was overcome by the fumes as he dug through his bag and ran behind a dumpster to vomit.
It was soon evident to all that most of these people’s only worldly possessions were permanently damaged and contaminated and so would need to be discarded. People gingerly picked through their belongings in hopes of finding salvageable items; medicine, family photos, a cell phone. Others were overcome by tears as they sadly bade farewell to everything else. Craig captured the somber occasion.
These seven crime victims have so far not received so much as an apology from the officials responsible for this shameful episode of domestic abuse.
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The city has expended considerable funds to deprive these people of their only possessions, despite the claim that they cannot contribute to constructive solutions due to budget constraints. It has fallen to the community to come together to mitigate the damage that their city government has done to some of our most vulnerable residents.Donations are being accepted at either location of Globe University:
• West Campus is 1345 Deming Way (by Greenway Crossing)
• East Campus is 4901 Eastpark blvd (by American Parkway)
Cash donations can be sent to “Center for Community Stewardship” Memo line: Friends of the State Street Family, 35 Karl Ave, Bellevlle, WI 53508
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If you wish to convey your thoughts on the issues highlighted by this incident, email messages can be sent directly to these responsible city officials:
• Chief of Police Nobel Wray – email@example.com
• Mayor Paul Soglin – firstname.lastname@example.org
• City Attorney Michael May – email@example.com
• Parks Superintendant Kevin Briski – firstname.lastname@example.org