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Mayor Paul Soglin vows action on crime at homeless housing

November 28, 2018

Heartland Housing opened its new project for the homeless at 7933 Tree Lane in mid-June, bringing permanent housing with support services to 45 families. But the development has generated a lot of police calls.

Mayor Paul Soglin on Tuesday outlined steps to address crime and violence around a new housing project for homeless families on the Far West Side, including assigning a deputy mayor to work out of the site.

But a City Council member who represents the area said the mayor’s moves fall short and vowed to apply more pressure including a possible city nuisance abatement action to address behavior problems at the modern, four-story building at 7933 Tree Lane.

Heartland Housing’s $11.7 million, 45-unit project — Madison’s second big experiment with a Housing First approach to homelessness — has delivered permanent housing for 45 of the city’s neediest homeless families — but also required much police attention for incidents including gunfire, the arrest of a person for an attempted homicide at another location, large-scale fights and more.

Soglin said he is taking the rare step of assigning Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes, a former 13-year veteran of the Madison Police Department, to work from the site in order to gather information, give advice to Heartland’s management and connect with residents.

Speaking at a press conference, the mayor said a small number of households at the building, visitors and others attracted to the site are creating a high volume of problems, and that it is an “extraordinary step” to assign someone from his staff to work from a specific housing project.

Also, Reyes is leading a safety team that includes representatives of the Madison Police, Heartland, YWCA Madison — which provides support services at the building — the Community Development Division and Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, who represents the site, to address safety and quality-of-life problems.

“We are going to get it right,” Soglin said. “We must continue with our commitment to eliminating chronic homelessness and all homelessness in Madison.”

An initial meeting is set for Wednesday.

Skidmore, who attended but didn’t participate in the press conference, said the gunfire, fights and other behavioral problems such as shoplifting, fraud, loitering and vandalism are spilling into the surrounding neighborhood and merit a stronger response. He said some residents told him they are arming themselves, and businesses are taking special precautions.

Many police calls

Heartland opened the Tree Lane Apartments in June. The property has generated about 210 police calls from June 21 through Nov. 23, including roughly 50 in November, police data show.

“Behavioral adjustments from living on the streets to living in community can pose unique challenges,” said police West District Capt. Cory Nelson, who did not attend the press conference. “Additionally, residents have a number of visitors and guests who do not have to conform to the same expectations as tenants.

Lease violations must be documented and enforced, Nelson said, adding, “there needs to be daily structured activities for the over 100 kids who live at the property. Many of the area problems seem to be directly related to unsupervised juveniles.”

“It’s all about behavior,” Skidmore said. “It’s not about race. It’s not about class. It’s about behavior and how you treat the people around you. The neighborhood is expressing fear and concern about their own personal safety.”

He blamed Heartland for failing to live up to promises to provide adequate support services and security and said Heartland is now offering marketing tactics to cover problems. He said he fears a homicide at the site, someone being shot or injured in the neighborhood, or a resident shooting an intruder.

“I’m very frustrated,” Skidmore said, vowing a “very direct and blunt” discussion on Wednesday.

Skidmore said he has asked police to explore the possibility of a nuisance abatement, which can lead to actions including a meeting with police and the city attorney’s office, a written abatement plan, fines, billing for police time, asking the court to appoint a receiver to manage the property and more.

If the behaviors persist, Heartland could also jeopardize their ability to do future projects in the city, Skidmore said.

Nelson said, “We will work cooperatively to see that all options have been explored and exhausted before speculating on worst-case scenarios.”

Heartland, in a statement, said the families at Tree Lane have been experiencing housing instability and the trauma of homelessness for years, and that it and the YWCA look forward to working with Reyes.

“The vast majority of our residents have adjusted to their new homes quite well and respect the goals of the community,” the statement said. “We appreciate your ongoing support as we implement the next phase of our efforts to create a safe and secure environment at Tree Lane and the surrounding community.”

Committed to Housing First

Soglin said he remains committed to Housing First, a national movement with roots in the late 1980s that puts the chronically homeless into permanent housing with no or few conditions and voluntary support services.

The city’s first try at Housing First, the $8.9 million, four-story, 60-unit Rethke Terrace, which opened for single chronic and veteran homeless at 715 Rethke Ave. on the East Side in June 2016, also generated a troubling number of police calls but has improved.

The city anticipated challenges with the projects and expected to make adjustments, Soglin said. The city must resolve problems to sustain support for part of a broader Affordable Housing Initiative that aims to create 250 units for the homeless over five years, including another Heartland project still under city review at 1202 S. Park St.

A major challenge, the mayor said, is identifying a reliable funding stream to pay for critical support services at Rethke, Tree Lane and future projects. He said the city can’t bear that burden.

Skidmore, who supported Heartland’s project at Tree Lane, said he remains committed to the concept of Housing First but said Heartland had to be made accountable for promises and address behavior problems.

“That’s not happening now,” he said. “That’s a major problem.”

Heartland’s statement said, “We are happy to strengthen our partnerships with the city, police, neighborhood organizations and supportive service agencies as we work together to solve one of Madison’s most pressing issues with compassion.”

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