The April 2 stabbing death of Brittany Zimmermann on West Doty Street has become the flashpoint for mounting frustration with Madison's homeless population, which over the last year has grown by 30%. In that time, the downtown Bassett neighborhood, where the murder occurred, has made an unprecedented number of calls to police, reporting problems with public drunkenness, urination, drug use and menacing panhandling.
In the days following the murder, police focused considerable attention on area transients, many of whom were arrested on unrelated charges. To date, no one has been charged with killing the 21-year-old UW-Madison student. Nonetheless, the murder has ignited an intense debate between those frustrated with homeless residents and social service workers who try and guide the homeless through their myriad problems.
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has been displeased with both sides of the debate, saying that such highly-charged rhetoric is useless in finding solutions to the problem. The mayor spoke with The Daily Page this week about this debate over homelessness and how residents should grapple with an increasing criminal element of homeless males.
What bothers you about the discussion on homelessness following the Zimmerman murder?
Cieslewicz: First of all, we need to balance this discussion of homelessness. We should not be rushing to judgment. We don't know who committed either the Marino or Zimmerman murders. Even when those murders are solved, we shouldn't make any assumptions about anybody in a given category, regardless who turns out to be the perpetrator. Having said that, issues relating to homelessness aren't new to the city of Madison. We've been a tolerant and generous community for a long time and that's not going to change.
As a community, how do we reconcile the fact that within this needy population there is a growing criminal element?
Just like this population of ours, the homeless population is somewhat diverse. People are homeless for different reasons. Sometimes it's purely economic. Sometimes it's a substance abuse issue, and sometimes it's a mental health issue. In terms of how we respond to it as a community, fundamentally we need to do two things. We need to be clear about and enforce standards of behavior. Walking into somebody's house and asking for money just isn't acceptable. We also need to have stronger compassion too, and understand there are reasons why people are out on the street.
Homeless advocates often seem to disregard that the behaviors of many homeless leave people downtown feeling intimidated and unsafe. Where does the city draw the line between what will and won't be tolerated, because some of the behaviors aren't illegal, but they're menacing?
We need to be clearer in the city about what behaviors are acceptable and which ones aren't. Clearly, aggressive panhandling shouldn't be tolerated. Entering someone's home without permission shouldn't be tolerated, and obviously any violent activity shouldn't be tolerated. Basically, we should expect people to behave themselves in a way that we'd ask anyone to behave.
But how do we get them to behave?
Obviously there are contacts with the police department, with community service workers and through them messages can be sent frequently and also homeless people talk to one another. Once those messages are sent, it will get through to the homeless community pretty quickly.
Has Madison's generosity toward homeless folks been taken advantage of?
Not taken advantage of, and again, in some ways, this has been an ongoing story for decades. As I said before, we're a generous community and that's not going to change. I'm not calling for it to be changed. I think we need to set some standards of behavior, have a balanced approach and also expect people to behave like good residents. I don't want Madison to be a magnet for homelessness, but I don't want us to turn away from the generous spirit we have.
So, it seems that there isn't really a solution.
It may be too much to ask for a solution. The solution is to address the issues of poverty and alcohol and drug addiction and mental illness. Certainly it's beyond the capacity of the city of Madison to solve those issues. But I don't think it's beyond the capacity of other levels of government to really try hard to do that. The federal government for example has not really seriously mounted an effort to reduce poverty in three or four decades. Some of these things the city can't do alone, but working together with the county, the state and eventually the federal government… if it can't be solved, the issue can be substantially improved.
Do you foresee the city ever stepping up and offering the services that the county has traditionally provided?
No, that is the primary responsibility of the county, though we have increased the homeless programs that we do have. But the county is the primary human service provider, as it should be. That's the way we divide up the work at the local level. So we need to look to the county to provide the primary leadership on the issue of human services.
Given this back and forth between people like Dave Blaska and Brenda Konkel, what would a more rational discussion sound like?
I haven't read the discussions, but I can sort of imagine what they're saying. I don't think that highly-charged rhetoric on either side of the issue is useful. I don't think either fanning peoples' fears of the homeless or condoning uncivil behavior are useful. What we need is a balanced approach that enforces standards of behavior and has an element of compassion to it. We need a discussion about solutions instead of pointing fingers.
Have you ever been intimidated or harassed by a homeless person?
I've never been intimidated or felt unsafe, but of course I see homeless people as I walk around the Capitol and on State Street. I certainly see the issue, but I've never felt intimidated by them, no.