Madison zoning regulations allow for all sorts of uses, including housing, industry, farming, burying dead bodies and keeping chickens and bees.
But Ald. Marsha Rummel laments that the rules don't include places for homeless people to live. "There's no legal place for you to sleep outside, especially if you don't want to hide," she says.
The issue was raised when Occupy Madison set up camp in the 800 block of East Washington Avenue in November 2011. The city gave the group a temporary camping permit for a protest, but did not allow it to stay beyond April 2012. Private property has also been off-limits to the group. The city gave Koua Vang numerous tickets last winter for allowing Occupy Madison to camp on vacant property he owns on Portage Road (Vang is fighting the charges in court).
Says Rummel: "There was a really good-faith effort to find places, but they kept running into zoning issues."
Rummel wants to change this situation. She is getting ready to introduce an ordinance that would allow churches and nonprofit groups to host up to three campers on their property.
Although Rummel says there are "still some questions to answer" regarding her proposal, she hopes to introduce it soon. The idea is to allow organizations that have "a mission" of serving people to offer limited camping on their land.
Although Rummel's ordinance would allow tents on church property, it comes just as Occupy Madison has started building mini-houses, or camping trailers, at a workshop on the north side. (See Madison.gov, 7/25/2013.) The trailers will be outfitted with composting toilets and solar lights. They can be parked on the street but have to be moved every 48 hours.
Being permitted to park for longer periods at a permanent location would be a huge benefit, says Occupy's Bruce Wallbaum.
"They'll know where they're living. And it allows for them to be on the grid. They'll have electricity," he says. "It seems like a good solution to get through the winter."
But the proposal first has to be approved by the Common Council. Rummel doesn't predict the odds on that happening, but notes that a number of council members have expressed interest in co-sponsoring the ordinance.
Wallbaum says he's thrilled that people want to help. Rummel and members of several churches toured Occupy's mini-house workshop.
"I've been to quite a few meetings where you're struck with negativity, and there was no negativity," he says. "There were questions about how we can get involved."