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THE NATION

In a liberal bastion, a homeless backlash

After two unsolved slayings in Madison, Wis., the transient population comes under suspicion.

May 27, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MADISON, WIS. — There was a time when residents in this liberal college city would greet homeless people by name.

They'd stop to chat with Scanner Dan, the grizzled guy with a walkie-talkie buzzing at his hip as he asked for change. They'd offer odd jobs to a man known as Snowball, who was rumored to have been a smuggler for the Chicago mob during Prohibition.

Then two violent slayings in less than three months shook residents in the state capital, which is also home to the main campus of the University of Wisconsin.

Both victims were stabbed in their homes in the middle of the day by strangers, police said.

Though investigators have no suspects, the police focused on the city's homeless and transients, among others. Now a backlash against Madison's down-and-out population is brewing.

And that is causing some soul-searching in Madison, sometimes referred to as "the Berkeley of the Midwest," after the University of California campus city known for its liberal politics and values shaped by the 1960s counterculture.

"It used to be the homeless were tolerated and somewhat supported," said former six-term Mayor Paul Soglin, who led the city during antiwar riots in the 1970s. "But the combination of more homeless, more aggressive panhandling and these recent crimes has led to some not-so-politically-correct views."

After student Brittany Zimmermann was killed April 2, police interviewed dozens of homeless in the downtown area.

Police took DNA samples from some of the panhandlers, and more than a dozen were arrested on unrelated charges, Madison police Officer Meredith York said.

But department spokesman Joel DeSpain said "the homeless have been a focus, not the only focus" in Zimmermann's death and the January slaying of businessman Joel Anthony Marino, 31.

"We're just trying to talk to everyone who may have been in the area when the crimes occurred," DeSpain said.

Some Madison residents say such scrutiny is overdue in a city that allows the homeless to spend their days in the Capitol's basement, and provides meals for them on Sundays.

But civil rights and homeless activists say the city is unfairly using the homeless population as a scapegoat.

"You cannot blame an entire community of people, just because they live on the street, for crimes where there's not a single suspect," said Linda Ketcham, executive director of the Madison-area Urban Ministry, a nonprofit social justice organization. "If you do, all you're doing is fueling fear and hate."

As the weeks pass, downtown residents say they feel increasingly unsafe in a place that has long enjoyed a sense of small-town security.

"There's a lot more door-locking going on when people are home," said Mary Berryman Agard, who lives a few blocks from where Zimmermann was killed. "I know several young women who have left the neighborhood in fear. The bars and restaurants are starting to walk their staff home at night."

Local governments nationwide are struggling with increasing numbers of homeless amid a slumping economy, said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Boston has prohibited sitting or lying in some public places in order to curtail sleeping on the streets. When Columbia, S.C., took over the management of winter homeless shelters, police officers conducted background checks of those who used them.

Even in a traditional haven like San Francisco, city officials are considering a plan to encourage citizens to drop spare change into orange "homeless meters" that would aid groups that help the homeless, instead of giving it to panhandlers.

"More cities are passing laws that are anti-panhandling, anti-camping, anti-everything," Stoops said. "It's depressing, and it's only getting worse."

There have been 26 homicides in Madison over the last five years, DeSpain said. Five remain unsolved -- including those of Zimmermann, Marino and Kelly Nolan, a 22-year-old college student who was killed last summer in Madison. Her body was found south of the city in a wooded area.

"It is completely unprecedented that we'd have three stranger-type homicides like these," DeSpain said. "Most of our homicides are drug-related or domestic violence. . . . We really don't have random acts of violence."

The city already had limited panhandling to two spots along State Street, a popular area for panhandlers, where Nolan was last seen alive. Now police heavily patrol the eight-block pedestrian stretch of taverns and boutiques that links the University of Wisconsin's main campus to the Capitol.

Some residents are waging private battles to push the homeless out.

Former Dane County Supervisor David Blaska, a conservative blogger, has posted the names, photographs and birth dates of 23 transients whom police have banned from certain downtown businesses for trespassing, harassing the public and other offenses.

"Why shouldn't their faces be out there?" Blaska said.

Last month, businessman Fred Mohs stopped allowing a downtown church to use one of his garages for parking after the church refused his request to close its homeless shelter.

"I'm all for helping people improve their lives," said Mohs, 71, a retired real estate lawyer who has owned property downtown for 50 years. "But that's not what we're dealing with here. It's aggressive panhandling, aggressive touching, scary behavior from people on drugs or mentally ill."

Even those who have supported homeless efforts have found themselves uneasy.

When Soglin's daughter -- a freshman at the University of Wisconsin -- took an evening astronomy course this year, she didn't feel comfortable walking back to her dormitory alone.

"If no one else was available, she'd call me or my wife and we'd drive her back," the former mayor said. "It doesn't matter that it's only a few blocks. It only matters that she's safe."

--

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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