Thursday, September 18, 2014

Taking away even the rug to sweep them under

Brenda Konkel gives tours of the first Tiny House built by OM
Madison has a strange relationship with its homeless population. A lot of folks at the city government level, homeowners in certain neighborhoods, and various others seem to think very little or not at all about those less fortunate who live on the streets, in broken down cars, and in occasional hotel rooms all around them. The attitude has been one of "out of sight, out of mind" for quite some time, even as the homeless population in the city grows. Our own mayor, Paul Soglin, once made a serious proposal to fund a program to stick homeless people on buses and ship them off to other towns.

There is no dedicated day/warming shelter, even after four years of attempts to create a new one. Current shelters are filled to overflowing, and often have incredibly limited resources, hours of operation, and sometimes overly strict rules that leave many people without a bed or any kind of hope for services that might help them get back on their feet.

Don't even get me started on the mess that is our public transportation system.

Thankfully, there are a good number of folks in the city who work hard, every day, to tackle the problem of homelessness in a very thoughtful and serious way. They're the ones who lobbied for and got the new Tiny House settlement on E. Johnson, pushed for the Occupy encampment (which was ultimately shut down by the city), and generally advocate for the people that a majority would seem to rather ignore entirely.

Brenda Konkel is one of the most prominent names among those fighting on behalf of the homeless population. A former alder and current executive director of the vital Tenant Resource Center, Konkel has been on the front lines of the fight for better treatment of and resources for the homeless for years. She's one of those money-where-your-mouth-is, walk-the-walk types that the world, quite frankly, needs more of. I've not always agreed with her on certain issues, but I admire the hell out of her dedication, compassion, and grit.

So I was particularly dismayed to read the story in today's Capital Times detailing the current effort by the city to shut down one of Konkel's good deeds. She and her partner have been keeping storage lockers on the front porch of their own home for those without roofs over their heads, so they have a safe place to keep their belongings stashed (instead of having to haul everything around on their backs all day). They've been allowing some of them to sleep on the porch as well. These are folks who have no other safe place to go, for a variety of reasons. This is last-ditch for them. But one neighbor complains, and that's all she wrote:
Brenda Konkel, a vocal Madison advocate for the homeless, and her partner, Robert Bloch, are facing potential fines of up to $300 a day if they don’t stop allowing homeless people to sleep and store belongings in lockers on the porch of their North Hancock Street house. ... “These are human beings,” [Konkel] said. “If the city and the county aren’t doing this, why prevent us from doing it?”
Good question. I know "laws are laws" and understand that the Building and Zoning Departments are technically just doing their jobs here, but how about we take a hard look at those laws and see where exceptions might be able to be made--we're talking about the health and well being of fellow humans, after all. And if the city isn't willing and/or drags its feet so hard in terms of meaningful reform to tackle the issue, then at least let folks like Brenda do what they can to stanch the bleeding.

Attacking day to day efforts like this one is akin to removing even the rug that so many homeless find themselves swept under. At least in that case, there's something covering them when they sleep at night.

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