Guest column: Screw your discomfort—embrace real solutions to homelessness
A former Madisonian reflects on empathy, rehabilitation and how "in my backyard" is a relative term.
Years ago, I had an apartment on Blair Street where my downstairs neighbors sold cocaine and cocaine accessories. As I'm sure you can imagine, it was craziness—the real deal, Breaking-Bad-Season-Three kind, where there's graffiti on the walls and someone having sex in the corner and someone taking a dump on the floor. I once clearly overheard a guy's head being bashed through the wall.
They had a weekly party that ran from Thursday at dusk to Sunday at dawn. We could tell the party was going on, because at least once a week, some sorority girls would knock on our door asking about it. Picture the scene, if you will: myself and my lumpy, bespectacled roommates sitting around arguing about which Final Fantasy game has the best music (it's VII, dammit), when all of a sudden we hear a knock at the door.
“Who could that be?” we say to each other. “We don't have any other friends.”
We open the door to find a group of women. We say hello.
“Is this the party?” they ask, in that snide voice where they talk from their uvula and never fully close their mouths.
I glance around at my roommates, the anime playing on the TV, the fog of sadness hanging in the air. “It could be,” I say, then watch their faces morph into an expression so disappointed that it approaches anger.
“I'm kidding. You're looking for the place downstairs.” And they would leave, usually with one of those breathy exclamations of impatience and disapproval. “Ugh. What a fucking loser,” I would hear through the door as they disappeared down the stairs.
Anyway, in addition to the women, there would also be a steady stream of vagrants—of all sizes, shapes, colors, and odors—that would roll through, and so about once a week we would find a new person squatting in the basement. I would be friendly, say hello while I was down there doing laundry, then I would quietly head upstairs and call the police. Call me callous, but I didn't want to go down to fold socks one day, find an over-dosed dead fella, and have to answer all those questions.
Then, as the winter of 2011 fell, something remarkable happened.
It was the Age of Occupy: the Madison capitol protests had happened about a year before, and the movement was gaining steam. In our case, the camp was in a parking lot a few blocks from our building. Like a lot of left-wing movements, it had a period of being cool, and for a while the place seemed more like a vaguely political Phish concert, a cesspool of fake hippies taking a break from whatever bullshit college degree their parents were paying for anyway.
However, after a month or two, it stopped being cool. That’s when shit got real. A bunch of charity people moved in, they built heated Quonset huts, they set up a medical tent, they served soup a couple times a day in the abandoned building across the street, and from my recollection, basically every single homeless person in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood disappeared.
I mean, they didn't disappear—I would see them at the camp—but at least none of them were living in my fucking basement. It was a glorious few months, and not just for my own selfish reasons. I talked to a few of the people who I had seen around, and they were ecstatic. They were getting help, in some cases, for the first time in their lives. Here was a visible, accessible lifeline, and when something like that exists—where there's no paperwork, no bureaucracy, just a Lutheran lady serving soup—people benefit. Lots of people.
Eventually the camp lost their permit, and had to close. Within a few days, there was a new person squatting in my basement. That's not a casual correlation: that's cause and effect. And it's an effect that we, as a society, totally have the power to change.
So if you live near the proposed homeless shelter the Dane County government is setting up and you're one of those Not-In-My-Back-Yard people, suck it up. Your opposition is just rooted in fear anyway, and that will go away after one session of volunteering. Go down there, hear someone's story, and try to develop some goddamn empathy. These homeless people aren't scary, they're not immoral, they just couldn't navigate the system for one reason or another.
The City of Madison, meanwhile, is actively failing them. Under the current proposed approach (some of which the Madison City Council has so far rejected), homeless people will be deterred from homelessness, inspired to rise up and become productive members of society through... a series of fines! Municipal fines, which will fund government agencies and help pay the salaries of the people who drop quarters into their cups as they sleep on the city hall porch.
(I think that’s called reciprocity.)
But what’s the endgame of that? If you fine someone who has no money, and they can’t pay, they probably go to jail, thereby becoming an official financial burden to the city—which I think is the exact opposite of a fine’s intended effect.
It’s a classic example of the ineffectiveness of right-wing policy (yes, Paul Soglin, right-wing policy), wherein the only metric of human worth is a monetary one. You’ve inconvenienced society in some way, and so you pay a fine, which repairs your debt. If you have no money, your debt must be paid by some other means, such as deprivation of your freedom, which was limited in the first place because you didn’t have any money.
An alternative to this nihilistic loop of damages and punishment is rehabilitation. If someone receives a meal and a haircut and job placement assistance, they can cease to be a burden to society—they can become productive, which is the ever-failing goal of fines and imprisonment.
These people need help, and you (yes, you) need to stop pretending like it's someone else's problem. It's our problem, and there is a solution imminent.
They have to go somewhere. Having had homeless people literally in my backyard (and back hall, and basement, and the apartment below us after it was vacated), I can tell you that rehabilitation works. I can also tell you that we’re all human, and if you want to be pessimistic, you’ll always be able to spin a horror story out of your vague, privileged discomfort. But that’s not helping anything.