Madison policymakers have begun exercising efforts to address homeless people sleeping and drinking alcohol in city buildings as the details of a city ordinance billed to ensure employees’ safety begins to take effect.
Madison Alcohol Policy Coordinator Mark Woulf said a recently approved ordinance aims to address the congregating of homeless individuals in city buildings by enforcing the prohibition of alcohol within those buildings. The ordinance allows Madison police officers to arrests citizens carrying or drinking alcohol inside city- or county-owned buildings.
“When it was approved, the police department did reach-out work and let homeless people know [about the ordinance],” Woulf said. “We just wanted to make sure they were aware that the police department can now enforce those rules.”
Woulf said the number of homeless people congregating inside city-owned buildings has been on the rise this winter due to the inability to utilize other public gathering spaces that have been open to the homeless community in the past, such as the Central Library and Capitol building.
With the closings of these public spaces, members of the homeless community have turned to other options for warmth and space in a building, including area shelters.
Porchlight, a local organization that provides shelter for the homeless community, recently opened a daytime resource center in a building site previously occupied by the Don Miller car dealership on East Washington Street.
Executive Director Steve Schooler said the center is only open during the day, but offers an alternative space for the homeless community to gather and stay warm during the winter months. The center will close in mid-March, once temperatures have risen.
Despite alternative buildings directed at sheltering homeless citizens, several still congregate inside city and county buildings.
Ald. Scott Resnick, District 8, said Madison police have identified several homeless people who have caused disruptions within city buildings in the past.
“Very recently the precinct captain sent an email containing images of five individuals who are no longer welcome,” Resnick said. “These individuals were banned from entering city buildings due to bad behavior, including the consumption of alcohol in public bathrooms and the threatening of a custodian.”
Resnick said these identifications and the recent ordinance are not a crackdown on the homeless community, but instead are an attempt to address the issue of safety inside city buildings.
The Madison Police Department has also dealt with safety issues concerning the homeless community. MPD spokesperson Joel DeSpain said citizens with no permanent address have often been removed from private properties. This has frequently happened in off-campus student housing areas, DeSpain said.
He said MPD has also made efforts to help the homeless community, with officers distributing blankets, hats and mittens to those without a permanent address throughout the winter months.
“Many of our downtown officers work very hard trying to help those who are in need by plugging them in to the resources that are available to them,” DeSpain said. “Our department cares about the safety of everyone in the community, and those who do not have a permanent address are part of that community.”
Leah Linscheid contributed to this report.