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Slaying sparks backlash against homeless

The slaying of a college student in a downtown Madison, Wis., neighborhood frequented by beggars has forced this liberal city to ask a difficult question: Has Madison been too nice to the homeless?
Homeless Backlash
Homeless resident Phalen Pierson lounges in the basement of the Capitol in Madison, Wis. where the recent murder of a college student has sparked a debate over whether the city is too friendly to transients.Ryan Foley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The slaying of a college student in a downtown neighborhood frequented by beggars has forced this liberal city to ask a difficult question: Has Madison been too nice to the homeless?

A debate over the city's friendly treatment of its transient population had been under way for months, but last week's killing of University of Wisconsin student Brittany Zimmermann started something of a backlash against the homeless.

Police have arrested dozens of transients on unrelated charges as part of the investigation, but none are considered suspects in the death. The city also announced plans Wednesday to confront problems at a nearby park where the homeless congregate, although those efforts were in the works before the murder.

Zimmermann was slain in her apartment in the middle of the day, in a neighborhood where homeless people often went door-to-door looking for cash. Police Chief Noble Wray said Thursday that he believes the killer broke into Zimmermann's building.

In late January, a 31-year-old man was killed in his home not far from Zimmermann's residence.

Investigating the homeless
Police are questioning people in the neighborhood, including the relatively large concentration of transients.

"They are a focus of the investigation," police spokesman Joel DeSpain said.

The scrutiny is unusual in a city that allows homeless people to congregate every day in the Capitol basement and offers free meals there on Sundays. The homeless panhandle on street corners in student neighborhoods and in the area between the Capitol and the university.

The city's welcoming attitude has attracted more homeless people, and some beggars are becoming increasingly aggressive, police Lt. Joe Balles said.

"We've kind of institutionalized an enabling environment downtown for this transient population to grow unchecked," Balles said. "They are downtown preying largely off of that student population and really preying off a lot of our good compassion as Madisonians. In a way, they are taking advantage of us."

One problem area has been nearby Brittingham Park, where neighbors complain that transients use illegal drugs and drink alcohol all day. They often sleep in the park overnight and occasionally try to enter nearby cars and homes.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's office announced plans Wednesday to install surveillance cameras, increase lighting and perhaps ban repeat offenders from the area. For some residents, such measures are long overdue.

"They are frustrated," said city council member Julie Kerr, whose district includes the park.

Earlier conflict over transients
The conflict over the transients began before Zimmermann's death.

Last month, businessman Fred Mohs threatened to take away a church's free Sunday parking in a garage he owns unless the church closed a homeless shelter. The church refused to do so and lost its parking April 1.

"They were contributing to the infrastructure that concentrates vagrants in downtown Madison," said Mohs, a prominent Republican who was widely denounced as cold-hearted. "As a group, they are bad neighbors: public urination, scary panhandling and more than average criminal behavior. We have to recognize this is bad for downtown."

As part of the murder investigation, DeSpain said, "a couple of dozen" transients have been arrested on outstanding warrants and for violations such as trespassing and illegal drinking.

"What this crime has facilitated is a public discussion about transient people in general and what can be done in the downtown," he said. "I think people would argue that Madison is a place of compassion, and we should accommodate people. Some others have said enough is enough, and it's time that we do more."

Crackdown worries advocates
But advocates for the homeless said the crackdown is unfair. They held a news conference Thursday to denounce the anti-homeless sentiment developing in the city.

Linda Ketcham, director of the Madison Area Urban Ministry, blasted the city's "increasing villainization of the poor" and worried it could lead to violence.

"I think they are being focused on because they are an easy scapegoat," Ketcham said. She acknowledged the possibility that Zimmermann was killed by a homeless person. "But that's one person," she said.

Bob Yingling, 55, a former custodian who has been homeless for five years after losing a job, said the police harassment "is getting worse and worse."

"And when stuff like this murder happens, it can only get even worse," he said. "I mean, who else are they investigating but the transients and the homeless?"

But even some homeless people say they have it relatively easy in Madison.

Phalen Pierson, 48, said he spends six days a week lounging in the Capitol basement between shifts as a caterer. He said he could never relax the same way in his hometown of Cleveland.

"They'd call security on you," said Pierson, who has been homeless on and off for eight years. "In Madison, it's like 'here, here, here.' There's too many handouts. A lot of these guys sit on their butts all day and don't do nothing but drink."