Madison has been having a tough time with homelessness. 

Recently, the city decided to put an end to panhandling in the downtown area. As long as I can remember, the rattling of change in a plastic cup and the usual pleasantries that accompany it have been quintessential features of a walk down State Street. Panhandling is a highly visible symptom of a significant population that is unemployed and in poverty; this is a problem – a problem Madison has become too comfortable with over the years. 

When city officials began to realize many panhandlers were ex-convicts with extensive criminal histories organized under an abusive ringleader, they decided to end panhandling all together. The thought was panhandlers would be replaced by charity “parking meters” where a passerby could drop change, which would go to charities serving the homeless – and I would bet folding money the net earnings of “charity meters” will pale in comparison to the aggregate GDP of the panhandling industry. Thus the downtown area will be free of panhandlers, but nickels and dimes will still find their way to those in need. 

No riff-raff on State, but no guilt either. Is there not something inhumane about all of this – that city officials assume citizens of Madison want to give pocket change to those in need, as long as they don’t have to interact with panhandlers directly by placing money in their hands? Replacing panhandlers with change machines is completely dehumanizing. 

Recently, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi came up with a plan for a daytime homeless shelter on the east side, a place where the homeless could find warmth during the winter months. The shelter has become a matter of some contention among city officials, partly because it is located between a grade school and a center for after-school programs, which raised questions of safety. 

But more importantly, Mayor Paul Soglin made the important point Parisi’s shelter doesn’t attack any of the underlying causes of homelessness.
Soglin cuts straight to the core of this issue: Madison doesn’t need temporary homeless shelters, and it sure as hell doesn’t need cold metal change jars in place of panhandlers. The homelessness and panhandling we see on a daily basis in Madison are simply the visible effects of widespread poverty, pervasive substance abuse and untreated mental illness. 

For too long, this city has been putting a variety of band aids on a bullet hole. It’s tried to move the problem, in the case of panhandling, and it’s tried to treat symptoms instead of causes, in the case of Parisi’s homeless shelter.
If the city wishes only to assuage its own middle-class guilt, then by all means we should build more temporary day shelters and have the University of Wisconsin computer science department build robot panhandlers which will be exceedingly polite and refrain from all cat-calling as they rattle quarters in a titanium cup, but be incapable of having the sort of truly human interaction that is an essential part of any real social justice. 

On the other hand, if Madison desires to address poverty directly – if it wants to see long term results, then the city needs to hear the mayor out when he told The Badger Herald, “Day shelters and overnight shelters are not a solution to the homeless problem. Permanent housing is the solution.”
I’d go a step further and say the city should also invest in substance abuse programs and counseling. This isn’t because drug abuse and mental illness are the causes of homelessness, or homeless people tend towards addiction and instability – it goes both ways, and there is a close relationship between drug abuse, mental illness and severe poverty. 

Those in extreme poverty have been affected most extremely by the poor economy we are living in, and hence what has been a perennial problem for years in Madison has become more acute. If the city wants to be a part of long term change and give poor people the social justice they deserve as Madison residents and human beings, it should follow Soglin’s advice and invest in permanent solutions to permanent problems.

Charles Godfrey ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in math and physics.