Helping the Homeless in my Neighborhood

When I posted Welcoming the Homeless to our Neighborhoodabout 5 months ago, I truly did not expect that it would quickly become my most read blog post, and then get published in the Capital Times. For the most part, the reaction was positive, but that does not mean that all my neighbors support the creation of a comprehensive day resource center just a few blocks from where I live. A community meeting was well attended and the feelings were both strong and mixed. It was facilitated by my next door neighbor, and President of the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association, Patty Prime, and she did an excellent job of helping to keep the process civil and allowing all voices to be heard.

From the outset, it has been my view that our County desperately needs a comprehensive day resource center to serve people who are homeless and that has been the case for at least 5 years as our homeless population has increased. Of course, we also need a significant increase in affordable housing and both the City of Madison and Dane County have responsibility for housing and serving people who are homeless.

After County Executive Joe Parisi announced the offer to purchase the Messner property, both supporters and opponents saw this as a bold move. The County Board ultimately approved the purchase of the property and the purchase has been completed. A contractor has been chosen for construction and renovation of the building. However, unfortunately the County rejected the only bid that applied to operate the day resource center, which has left the project in a holding pattern.

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Having lived in Madison for over 30 years, I have watched many projects spin their wheels for years and sometimes decades. Some eventually are built. Others simply fade away. However, in this particular case, I am not willing to let inertia set in while those who are homeless spend yet another winter with inadequate shelter.

With that concern in mind, I had an opportunity to speak with County Executive Joe Parisi today to express my concern that this project must be done right and that he must exercise public leadership to see it to successful completion. Fortunately, he agreed with me. I believe that he is committed to creating a comprehensive day resource center for our homeless population that will be a model for other communities to follow and satisfy our neighborhood’s most pressing concerns for safety and neighborhood participation in planning. He also assured me that the County will not seek the conditional use permit which it needs from the City of Madison in order to operate the center, until it has an operator. The County is currently working with the City of Madison and United Way to join the County to make sure there is sufficient funding for successful operation of the center.

During our conversation, he informed me that he was going to send a memo to County Supervisors to update them about the status of the center this afternoon. His staff provided me with a copy of the memo as well as attachments which included information about successful day resource centers in Fort Worth and Indianapolis. I am pleased to see that County staff are clearly doing their research to identify models worth replicating.

County Executive Parisi’s memo concludes by making clear that,

The day resource center is just one piece of a larger, community-wide effort currently underway to end homelessness for more people and move them into safe, permanent housing.

He mentions the City of Madison’s commitment to create 250 units of permanent supportive housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, including 60 units which will open this spring that have intensive, on-site support on Madison’s east side and 45 more units scheduled to open on Madison’s west side in 2017.

The memo concludes with an important philosophical statement adopting,

a housing first philosophy-where no conditions need to be met in order for an individual to access housing.

I remain personally committed to working with my neighbors, my County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, a committed advocate for people who are homeless, and County Executive Parisi to do what I can to make my neighborhood comprehensive day resource center a model for other communities to follow with a goal to reduce and ultimately end homelessness in our community.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Mission Accomplished

Systems change usually involves many  steps and can take many years. In some cases, such as battling racism, the job is never really completely done, as progress is usually incremental. But occasionally, my work allows me to celebrate completing a multi-step complex job and one week ago, I could indeed say, “Mission accomplished!”

About 4 years ago, I was elected as Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD), which has public authority to preserve and protect Goose Lake, located in Adams County, Wisconsin, in what is known as the Central Sands area of the state, made famous by the classic environmental text, Aldo Leopold’s, Sand County Almanacwhich I highly recommend to those who have yet to read it. I have read it multiple times and learn something every time I read it.

While Goose Lake is pristine in many ways, hosting a wide range of both water and land wildlife and diverse botanical features, about 40 years ago, someone who developed about 20 vacation homes across from a small island on the lake, known as Gilligan’s Island, built a boardwalk and bridge to the island. While it was charming in many ways, as nobody had maintained this wooden structure for 40 years, it was falling apart and had become quite dangerous, with broken boards and protruding rusty nails.

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When I became chair, I was determined to either remove or repair the bridge. However, I quickly found out that the original developer who sold the parcels on that section of the lake and built the bridge also attached joint ownership of the island to each property owner’s deed. Initially, the GLWD explored the possibility of buying the island in order to deal with the dilapidated bridge. However, the deeds were also restricted in a way that prevented property owners from selling off only their island ownership.

The GLWD recognized that we were dealing with our neighbors, so antagonizing them was simply never an option. Instead, we decided that we would regularly hold public meetings and send written updates on this project to property owners over a period of about 2 years. We always welcomed calls and e-mails, and what became apparent from these various contacts is that the property owners wanted the GLWD to solve this problem, despite the legal restrictions around property ownership.

At GLWD’s last Annual Meeting, we approved issuing a request for proposals to remove the bridge. We determined that since we had authority over the lake, we could remove it due to its dangerous condition. We found a good contractor whom we could afford, and when I spoke with him, I let him know that we would continue to inform the property owners every step of the way, and if there were any concerns from them, we would have to resolve them first. We also included a clause in the contract that required the contractor to avoid damaging any neighboring property.

Once a demolition date was set we notified property owners providing them with 10 days to notify me of any concerns. Hearing none, I informed the contractor that he could proceed. Last week, after a crew of 3 worked for 3 days, the bridge was finally removed, and Goose Lake was returned to its natural state. They did an excellent job and I have approved payment to the contractor.

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While much of my work involves building bridges, in this case, it was necessary to remove one. I am really looking forward to spring when the ice melts and we can all see the lake return to its natural state without the dangerous bridge. Occasionally, my systems change work, allows me to say, “Mission accomplished!” Although it took a few years, it is a very satisfying feeling.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Seclusion & Restraint in Our Own Backyard

As a leader in the movement to reduce the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint of our school children, I was pleased to see that Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin FACETS and Wisconsin Family Ties held a press conference yesterday to release their new report: Seclusion and Restraint in Wisconsin Public School Districts 2013-14: Miles to GoThe report reveals both data and stories about the ongoing use of seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin school, despite the passage of Act 125 in 2012, designed to reduce the inappropriate use of these aversive techniques.

In November of 2012, I posted a summary of the key provisions of Wisconsin’s New Law on the Use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children on my blog. Tellingly, it has been viewed every single month since then, and is my 3rd most read blog post.

To this day, many of my cases continue to involve the use of seclusion and restraint, including in my local school district, in Madison, Wisconsin. As the new report reveals, the number of children subjected to seclusion and restraint in Madison’s schools is actually increasing. In the 2012-13 school year, 248 students were subjected to seclusion and restraint. While in the 2013-14 school year, that number increased to 264. Sadly, these children are subjected to these aversive measures over and over again, which suggests that staff are not receiving the appropriate support to manage student behavior without using these dangerous techniques. In the 2012-13 school year, there were 2,291 incidents of seclusion and restraint (an average of over 9 incidents/student subjected to seclusion &/or restraint). In the 2013-14 school year, there were 2,362 such incidents (just under 9 incidents/student).

Sadly, when asked to respond to this problem, John Harper, Madison’s Executive Director of Student Services, failed to acknowledge the problem and instead fell back on the long debunked argument that these traumatizing techniques “ensure the safety of our students and staff.

When Act 125 passed, I was proud to be a co-author of this landmark legislation. I worked for 12 years along with many others to ultimately secure unanimous passage and the Governor’s signature on this important piece of legislation. Without this law, we would not have the data that this new report revealed.

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Governor Walker signing Act 125

But all advocates know that passage of a law is only a first step, albeit an important one. The law has improved behavioral management practices in many school districts. But, others remained challenged and fall back on punitive and traumatizing techniques. What we need are school superintendents and building principals who declare their schools to be seclusion and restraint free zones and for our legislature and Governor to provide sufficient funding to school districts so staff can receive the appropriate training and support to teach children appropriate behavior rather than traumatize them with the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change, visit his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Deepening the Ties the Bind Us

This morning, I was fortunate to be able to attend the annual Faith-Labor breakfast sponsored by the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice (ICWJ). It was a well attended event of a few hundred faith and labor leaders and supporters as well as low wage workers encouraging support for the Fight for $15 campaign to increase the minimum wage.

The guest speaker was the Rev. Michael Livingston, the Executive Minister of the famous progressive Riverside Church in Manhattan.

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In discussing his campaign to support federal contract workers earning less than $10/hour, Rev. Livingston encouraged each one of us to put ourselves in his shoes. He coined the term “policy violence” when he discussed the many ways our legal system institutionalizes poverty, racism and injustice.

While struggling for justice for people who are oppressed by the rich and powerful is often daunting, Rev. Livingston was able to confirm for us that many battles can be, and indeed, are won. After multiple strikes of low wage federal contract workers, President Obama announced in his 2012 State of the Union address, that he was signing an Executive Order which compelled all federal contractors to pay their workers a minimum wage of $10.10/hour. While this is still a poverty wage, it is significantly above the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, which Congress refuses to increase.

When Rev. Livingston took questions from the audience, he provided a good recipe to those questioning how they can hope to achieve their goals for worker justice in the face of so many obstacles. Quite simply, he affirmed what I have believed and wrote about many times. The foundation of systems change is community buildingHe want on to say that in order to build community, we must “deepen the ties that bind us in one human family.”

Rev. Livingston opened and closed his remarks with the encouragement that in our work to improve the world we, “open holy doors.” I was proud to sit next to my Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, at a table of my fellow congregants from the Congregation Shaarei Shamayimwhich co-sponsored this morning’s event. I am equally proud that my Rabbi’s wife, Rabbi Renee Bauer, is the Executive Director of the ICWJ. Together, Rabbis Laurie & Renee open holy doors on a daily basis and welcome all who are prepared to roll up their sleeves to improve the world.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.