Tension builds between city and homeless after belongings trashed
Post by Emily Mills on 10/15/2012 5:00pm
Tensions between the City of Madison and its homeless population, as well as those advocating on their behalf, are only increasing after an incident last Wednesday resulted in personal belongings being thrown into the trash.
According to a Madison Police Department incident report, "On Wednesday morning, Madison Police discovered a large number of items left on city property between the Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum, 30 W. Mifflin St., and State St."
Those items included bed rolls, suitcases, grocery bags, medicine, clothing, and "containers of alcohol." MPD reports that it had been working to educate people in the area that it is illegal to abandon property in public right-of-ways, but after an hour of searching that morning the officer responsible was unable to locate the owners.
"The officer then contacted Mall Maintenance staff and asked that the property be removed. Mall Maintenance responded with a truck and the abandoned property was taken to a city facility on Olin Ave.," reads the report.
However, according to those who had their belongings thrown out, they property had been stashed on the mall so that they could accompany a fellow homeless friend to the hospital for a medical procedure.
Brenda Konkel, director of the Tenant Resource Center and a former alder, contacted the city to ask why the property had been put in the trash instead of held, as is the policy for lost or abandoned property.
City Attorney Michael May's answer claims that the items in question were trash, and not subject to statutes regarding lost or abandoned property. The MPD incident report, however, refers to the items as "abandoned property" several times.
Pat Schneider, writing for the Capital Times, notes:
Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain told me he didn’t have details about this incident yet, but also said the department receives a lot of complaints about stuff left on the plaza for a long period of time. Police officers warn people who use the plaza that they can’t leave their belongings there, he said.
If belongings are left unattended in a public place, after awhile they’re considered abandoned property, DeSpain said.
State law requires that police leave a notice about where confiscated property they suspect was taken is being held and then hold it for 90 days, Konkel said.
About 40 advocates and those impacted by the move rallied at the City County building last Thursday to protest the action.
"It's constant harassment all the time from people walking around the streets looking at us funny to other people stealing our stuff, and now on top of it, even the city people, the police, are throwing our stuff away," Heather Welch, who's been homeless for about five months, told the Daily Cardinal.
"The Madison Police Department's intent was not to deprive anyone of their personal property, but to enforce the law and maintain safety," said MPD spokesman Joel DeSpain in a release. "Chief Wray also wants the community to know that officers working in this area continue to treat all people with dignity and respect."
Several individuals have gone to collect their property from the city facility but have reported most items damaged beyond use due to being compacted and/or covered in garbage.
The incident comes hot on the heels of the passage of a citywide ordinance that bans panhandling, and controversial comments from Mayor Paul Soglin regarding the city's responsibility to its homeless population.
Soglin lashed out at the County for plans to locate a day shelter on the city's east side, accusing Dane County Executive Joe Parisi of not following proper protocols in determining the location.
The mayor has also said he doesn't believe Madison has "the resources or the responsibility to take care of Dane County's and Wisconsin's homeless population."
Photo by ibm4381 on Flickr, creative commons license.
Emily Mills is Editor-At-Large for Dane101, as well as Editor of Our Lives Magazine. She is also a freelance writer, photographer, actor, and musician (drummer and singer in local band Little Red Wolf). Originally from several states up and down the Midwest Emily has called Madison home since 2000. Contact her at