Our obsession with the homeless

From the pages of In Business magazine.

I write this in early January on the coldest day in 18 years, with temperatures of 20 degrees below zero and wind chills that threaten life and limb. As Hyman Roth might have said, this is the climate we have chosen. On balance, we have decided the good outweighs brutally frigid days. But the human species is not always rational. A temple in India is devoted to rats, which have free run of the place. The Bears re-signed Jay Quitler. And many chronically homeless people shun free shelter, even in winter.

Motivated by honest human compassion with a dollop of Marxism, Madison is obsessed with solving “the homeless problem.” The homeless are victims of heartless capitalism. No one was homeless in East Germany, right?

Two years ago, Occupy Madison, a political offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, put up a tent city on a vacant car lot fronting East Washington Avenue. If the silent rebuke of its ramshackle squatters was too subtle, a hand-drawn poster advised rush-hour traffic, “We Can’t Be Bought.” But they accepted donations.

A home on wheels produced by Occupy Madison.

The economic refugees attracted at least one police call per day for things like theft, fighting, property damage, weapons, drugs, public intoxication, and sexual assault. Former Ald. Brenda Konkel explained that her group serves people who don’t abide by the rules of government providers. I guess!

“We need to remember the good that is being done for so many and not just focus on a few people who refuse help,” County Human Services Administrator Lynn Green told In Business

Stung by public revulsion, Occupy Madison is building tiny houses, each containing a composting potty, sink, propane heater, and microwave. The 98-sq.-ft. boxes have wheels. After some neighborhoods were plagued with people camping in their cars, the city passed a law requiring them to move every 48 hours. 

Folks here donated $37,000 to build the boxes at $3,000 each. Now comes the compassion stress test: Who will be the first good progressive to request one of these parked in front of his bungalow? The phone lines are open. 

Occupy Madison wants to erect a whole village of these little houses. They are looking at a tiny used car lot on busy East Johnson Street. Not so fast, the local alderman told the Wisconsin State Journal. “It’s going to be tricky to make this work out in a way that would be satisfactory to everyone.” 

Another possibility is a half-acre bound by East Washington Avenue and Hwy. 30. “This is not what this neighborhood needs,” said a second elected liberal, suggesting that a homeless village would degrade an area already chockablock with liquor stores, taverns, and a porn store. 



Occupy Madison got tiny-house religion after touring villages of them on the West Coast. Common challenges, Konkel blogged, were governance, alcohol and drug abuse, theft, and smoking.

The mayor and city employees didn’t have to visit the western camps. The squatters came to them after being ousted from the Capitol lunchroom, now padlocked. Municipal employees testified that they endured drunkenness, obscene taunts, and urine in the elevators. City police were issued mug shots of six of the occupiers “for officer safety.” 

Mayor Paul Soglin personally witnessed two women duking it out over a favorite bench. “Frankly, I see no sense in spending public money for buildings, shelter, day centers, or housing for individuals who either refuse to use them or will be banned for behavior reasons,” said the man The New York Times Magazine once described as Madison’s “hippie mayor.” 

Out on the winter streets, a volunteer reported: “We checked on the woman throughout the night. She will not go into the shelter. … She really just wants to be left alone. I give her survival gear and check on her. That’s the most we can do.”

The mayor proposed involuntary commitment. “When I raise the issue, I’m a heartless sonofabitch.” But then, no one said compassion would be easy — or that we could agree on what constitutes true compassion. 

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