Victor Anderson asks for spare change at Lisa Link Peace Park.
Proponents of renovating Lisa Link Peace Park have said all along that they're not trying to kick homeless people out of the park.
But the latest addition to the plans call for something that would prohibit one group of people: panhandlers.
There are only two places on State Street where panhandling is currently allowed: Peace Park and the 500 block, near Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. This is because city law bans panhandling within 50 feet of an ATM, as well as 25 feet from an intersection or sidewalk café, and 12 feet of any building that contains non-residential uses.
The panhandlers have worked out an informal system, where they take turns panhandling at the spots for an hour at a time.
But they will lose the spot at Peace Park if a plan to add an ATM machine to the proposed visitor center goes through. The renovations also call for a water spout, public bathrooms, a grassy amphitheater and a room for police. The ATM proposal has a lot of people angry.
Nathanial Abrams, an ally with Operation Welcome Home, says the ATM is intended to keep homeless out of the park. Abrams used to panhandle when he was homeless, using the money mostly to buy alcohol or cigarettes, he says. But he has an apartment now and doesn't panhandle anymore.
"[The ATM] is going to serve its purpose. It's a cosmetic solution to a more profound problem," he says. "It's only a problem to the city because it shows it's not taking care of its constituents."
Ald. Marsha Rummel was upset that the ATM was added and voted against it in a committee that reviewed the plans.
"It's an architectural element that suddenly appeared.
They come back with a new version and suddenly this ATM thing is there," Rummel says. "There's already alarm among homeless advocates that this park redesign is trying to get rid of homeless people. We were very conscientious about designing a park that would be for everybody. The ATM will trigger an ordinance that says, 'no, it's not.'"
Victor Anderson was panhandling at the park on Friday afternoon. He says he panhandles "every night, just to survive and get some food."
He wouldn't say how much he makes in a day, but adds, "I'm a Vietnam vet. I can't find a job. What are you going to do with us? To hell with us?"
Not all the panhandlers think it's a bad idea, though. A little later on Friday, Andre Moore was at the same spot at Peace Park. He says he can make about $20 in a day. He also got a $177 ticket for panhandling in an illegal spot on State Street. While he says panhandling can be an easy way to make a few bucks, restricting where you can do it "helps you move on" to find something more productive to do.
But the park plans are upsetting people for other reasons. Dolores Grengg, who was friends with the late Lisa Link and helped get the park named after her, is "disgusted with the whole thing."
"They think they will bring business to the area. It isn't very park like. Most parks don't have police in them, they don't have ATMs. They're supposed to be green respites," she says. "I don't think this would welcome me into the park."
Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison, Inc., and Mary Carbine, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, say the ATM is not intended to chase away homeless people.
Rather, they say, it's a means of raising money for the BID's downtown ambassadors. During the warmer months, the ambassadors now set up in two wooden kiosks at both ends of State Street, answering questions and passing out maps and brochures. When the visitors' center gets built at Peace Park, one of the ambassadors will move into it.
"This is an opportunity to have them work year round. It's actually an economic development effort because visitors are so important to our economy," Carbine says. "For us, even a couple thousand a year could mean an extra 100 hours the visitor center is open and maybe the bathrooms are cleaned twice a day."
But, they add that they don't want to encourage panhandling. "They'll go to other spots, legal or illegal," Carbine says. "But, I don't think our priority for the park should be to facilitate panhandling."
There's no shortage of ATMs in the State Street area, but Carbine says it's one of the main things visitors ask the downtown ambassadors.
Schmitz says the DMI and the city support the ReachOut Program, which pays for outreach workers to try to get people connected with services. It also produces a small pamphlet, distributed at stores, telling people how to deal with panhandlers and listing service providers they can donate money to.
That's basically the message that another former homeless man, Derrick Williams, had: "Don't give panhandlers a goddamn thing. Give money to a program that's accountable to how it is spent."
Abrams thinks further restricting panhandling will lead to more violence among the panhandlers. He says he's seen fights break out over who would take their turn next at the legal spots. Now, there'll be more competition for the legal spot.
Joe Jennings, who was homeless but now has an apartment, used to panhandle every day. He still does once in a while. He says that the effort to push out panhandlers is picking on a vulnerable population.
"College kids run around all night long, drinking, throwing garbage around," he says. "The homeless people don't have no place to go but the park."