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‘The majority would not be safe being out here:’ Advocates worry about winter and Madison’s homeless in tents

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Madison homeless encampment 9-9-2020

MADISON (WKOW) -- Advocates for the homeless express concern about a sizable increase in tent encampments in Madison as emergency housing and coming fall and winter temperatures.

"The majority I would say are fairly new to this and would not be safe being out here all winter long," Porchlight Street Outreach Manager Ben Jackson says.

Jackson says approximately 235 people were identified as using tents as emergency housing in 2019. Jackson says with nearly four months remaining this year, tent users number 350.

"I'm seeing a larger number largely because of the virus and the loss of jobs," Jackson.

In May, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway issued an executive order allowing certain city park space with the sanitary support of port-a-potties and hand washing stations to be used for homeless encampments.

Tent camper Sonia and her husband are in an area of the city's east side that's outside any space designated for this emergency housing. She tells 27 News they both lost restaurant jobs and their apartment when COVID-19 hit. Sonia says she's secured work again but it's limited.

"The restaurants are not in full force, not making the money...I did," she says.

Tent camper Shawn says even in the warm weather, somewhat cramped conditions and the abuse of alcohol and drugs by some in encampments have made life challenging.

"It's been a tough summer," he says.

Jackson says some bicyclists and neighbors have pushed back against an encampment that's sprung up near a bike path and under a Highway 30 bridge.

But Jackson and Madison Police Sgt. Ron Webster say most of the homeless encampments evolve into supportive communities. Jackson also says he's unaware of positive coronavirus tests associated with the tent living.

Webster says police are focused on ensuring safety as opposed to being punitive.

"I'd rather people be safe," Webster says. "I'd rather have a relationship where we can talk and know what's going on as far as needs. If somebody is being a safety issue, I'd rather know that than them see me and instantly think he's here just to move them along," Webster says.

Sonia concedes she's concerned about being in a tent when winter sets in.

"You get scared," she says. "It's going to be cold - how are you going to survive?"

"It's obviously not ideal to have people living rough like that," says Mayor Rhodes-Conway. "I think we would prefer to be able to connect people to services, but again, we're in sort of extraordinary times."

Jackson says immediate, weather-related needs of those in encampments may outstrip Porchlight's ability to provide all-season tents, winter-rated sleeping bags, appropriate heaters and other supplies to as many people who need them. He hopes charitable donations continue to help close the need gap.

Tent camper Sonia says she hopes an apartment will replace the tent she and her husband call home. "I just have to be optimistic."