Let's all say it together: Fred Mohs was right. Let's say it again: Fred Mohs is right.
I began working on a series of posts on the downtown "homeless" issue over a month ago.
- This was just after civic leader Fred Mohs in early March suspended the First United Methodist Church's free Sunday parking in the ramp he owns until the church gets a better handle on the homeless vagrants they have attracted with great big gobs of guilt-free honey.
- That was another month after Joel Marino was stabbed to death January 28 in his home on Monona Bay, not far from Brittingham Park, the haunt of many juiced-up "homeless" people.
- Now we have the truly tragic death of a promising young scholar and lovely human being, Brittany Sue Zimmermann, age 21, in her apartment on West Doty Street on April 2. From early indications, her slaughter may have been at the hands of the predator population that city taxpayers are feeding and housing.
- All of which follows the March 2005 torching in downtown Madison.
- And then there are the countless incidents of threatening behavior, accosted citizens, vile language, and other befoulings of the public square.
And I will have a lot more to say about this issue. This, Madison, is only the first salvo.
They shall be called vagrants
Fred Mohs sounded the alarm back on downtown lawlessness just as Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele did for the southwest side.
Both alerted the larger city to crime and quality of life problems. For a while last summer and fall, the movement to take back the streets for people willing to obey the law and follow the rules seemed to leapfrog the downtown on its way to the northeast side. But now the debate has augured right into Progressive ground zero.
The subject is the growing problem of single, homeless men, which constitute 42 percent of the total homeless population, according to the City of Madison Community Development Office.
Let's not prettify our terms. I will call these men "vagrants" so as to distinguish them from young mothers with children fleeing abusive situations.
Madison, celebrating the cult of victimization, has entitled these self-indulgent predators and shamed those who try to avoid or complain about the confrontations that degrade the downtown experience and, often, threaten the physical safety those who live, work or play there.
I have said this before: all the Overture Centers, art galleries, trendy boites, upscale condos and cute trolley cars will grow tumbleweeds if people are afraid to frequent the public square.
Ald. Thuy is on a rescue mission
Before she left in March to visit her ailing mother, Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele signaled that she will meet with Mohs to talk about major reform of the city ordinances and policies that seem to invite and enable deviant behavior.
"This is a big issue. That is why I want to see Fred," she told me. Of the so-called homeless, "They are all over the place, creating nuisances. They are abusing the system."
The fiery alder from District 20 is also trying to enlist the Chamber of Commerce, a notoriously timid organization, and the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, asking "What is the purpose of bringing people to Madison" if they are afraid to walk the streets?
Pham-Remmele criticized a $75,000 outlay to reach out to Madison's homeless, the Community Development Authority for "just handing out money," and the cornucopia of free food pantries.
Homelessness, for many, "is a lifestyle choice," Thuy told me. "We are enabling them."
She referenced troubles at the Downtown Madison Library and at the parks, especially Brittingham.
Knowledge is power
The presence of permissive "homeless shelters" -- funded by well meaning Christians who drive to leafier environs and don't have to live with their consequences and staffed by so-called "service providers" -- does nothing more than create an attractive nuisance.
Madison can combat its vagrancy problem. It can do so through a program of:
- Intensive policing
- Requiring work in exchange for food and shelter
- The expectation that vagrants must change their destructive behaviors
- Litigation, if necessary
Change the laws, change the culture
Here is what I hope -- but do not expect -- to hear in Mayor Dave's State of the City speech next Tuesday:
- Define the terms. The correct word for homeless man who does not work is "vagrant" and their condition is "vagrancy."
- Bring back the workhouse for single men. Change the definition so that new mission houses (as they are defined in city zoning ordinances) must require recipients to work a specified period of time for their cots and hots -- shoveling snow, sweeping sidewalks, picking up litter, scraping off graffiti. As in life itself, there is no free lunch in the City of Madison.
- Photograph and identify by Social Security number all recipients of homeless aid (including non-vagrant). Issue identification tags. Consider taking DNA samples if the "loss" of identity tags becomes habitual.
- Change the zoning ordinances so that all of Madison, not just the residentially zoned areas, must first seek and receive conditional use permits to serve vagrants. Those use permits will specify the conditions enumerated above.
- Increase visible police presence around shelters, especially around opening time. That includes cops walking the beat.
- Place remote-controlled cameras around those and other problem areas.
- Arrest anyone disturbing the peace; define the concept generously, adjudicate within 24 hours.
- Invoke an absolute ban on panhandling in all places at all times. In any event, never contribute.
- Sweep park shelters, boat houses, bus shelters, laundromats and other public places for trespassers. Arrest and remove occupants.
- Place those who cannot post bail in a work detail, under armed guard, to work off their cost of room and board. Hold these in a secure bunkhouse type of facility.
- Adjudicate within 48 hours. Those unable to pay their fine will work off their penalty.
- Wage a public outreach campaign to encourage citizens to report confrontations immediately. Encourage them to use pepper spray.
- Direct bus drivers, librarians, etc. that chief among their responsibilities is the duty to maintain order. Libraries are for reading, buses are not public pissoirs.
- Set aside a fund of several million dollars to litigate the inevitable nuisance suit filed by the ACLU. (The ACLU is now counseling children not to talk to their teachers about disciplinary matters without the presence of their parents.) Let them know the city's pockets are even deeper and they will not settle until the U.S. Supreme Court has decided, if necessary.