For more than two years, town of Clifton resident Dana Linscott has approached the River Falls City Council with his concerns on how the homeless population is treated in River Falls. The Sept. 12 …
For more than two years, town of Clifton resident Dana Linscott has approached the River Falls City Council with his concerns on how the homeless population is treated in River Falls. The Sept. 12 meeting was no exception. He used his two allowed minutes berating the council for what he believes is an anti-homeless no camping ordinance and covering up homelessness in general.
“The word compassion was used a lot by Alderman Carow’s public comment a few weeks ago (Aug. 22),” Linscott said. “To most people compassion is best described the phrase ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you.’ Anti-homeless ordinances which criminalize the basic needs of the homeless are not by any stretch of the imagination compassionate. In fact, they’ve been described by courts as cruel and unusual. Denying and covering up the problem of local homelessness is not contributing to anything resembling a solution. Yet this is all I have observed the city administration doing in the past two years. And there’s plenty of evidence that supports that observation, evidence I would love to present to the council were I not consistently denied the opportunity by the city administrator.”
Linscott is a member of what he calls the RF Homeless Alliance. He said it has 65 members, but about six or seven are “extremely active.”
The Journal obtained an email by Linscott to City Clerk Amy White dated Jan. 23, 2023 in which he requests to be put on the agenda for a 10-minute presentation titled “Criminalization of Homelessness in RF.” Linscott
White in turn sent the request to City Administrator Scot Simpson, who wrote back “Consider this request for 10 minutes on the agenda received by me. It is denied. As you are aware, members of the public are offered the opportunity to speak for 2-3 minutes at regular City Council meetings depending upon the discretion of the Mayor.”
On Jan. 16, 2023, Linscott asked Simpson to provide a reason and cited River Falls ordinance 1.12.060.
Simpson’s return email said the ordinance Linscott cited (he also cited 1.12.050) did not apply to his request to be on the agenda nor make him an “aggrieved party” as defined in the ordinance.
“You have several other mans to provide your concerns to the elected body,” Simpson wrote. “You simply not getting your way does not constitute making you an aggrieved party under the ordinance.
“Further, you already were given a reason why in the original response: individuals are afforded the opportunity to speak to the Council at each meeting under public comments. This is a privilege I know you are aware of since you already have exercised it twice.
“Do not expect further replies related to this request.”
Linscott said in October 2022 email to the Journal that he inadvertently became an advocate for River Falls’ unsheltered homeless while researching a solution for a “less than adequate RF public transit system.
“It turns out that white a few who become homeless in River Falls simply can no longer afford both a car and a home due to fast-rising housing costs,” Linscott said. “I found a surprising number of folks who had their car break down and in order to continue commuting to their jobs had to fix the car and consequently lose their home. Living in a vehicle is easy enough during the warm months but becomes more and more difficult as cold weather sets in.”
Back to the Sept. 12 public comment, Linscott said that according to the city’s own study, 634 requests for help at Our Neighbors’ Place came from homeless residents last year. That number was double the amount the previous year’s requests. Nationally, homelessness has risen by 20 to 25% since then, those having serious disabilities experiencing the greatest increase, he said.
“River Falls has no emergency shelter except Turningpoint, which is designated specifically for those fleeing domestic abuse and is typically unable to meet that demand,” Linscott said. “Vouchers provide very temporary emergency housing for a small percentage of the rest. Mostly those residents becoming homeless are on their own, despite the assumption that plenty of resources are available. The no camping ordinance effectively eliminates even that option.
“Homeless residents are approached by River Falls Police Department and after being provided with a packet of contact information for places like Our Neighbors’ Place and Turningpoint, they are warned they cannot shelter in a vehicle or in a tent inside the city limits, unless they afford to pay to stay at the city’s own camping area. If they’re unable to vacate the city limits, they are fined over $100 using the newly enacted ‘no camping’ ordinance, sometimes even when they are complying with it. Even if this did not violate these individuals’ constitutionally guaranteed rights and ignore due process, it would constitute an obvious conflict of interest.”
Mayor Dan Toland cut him off and thanked him, ending his speaking time.
Cut him off – he stopped and said “Compassionate.” And Toland said “Goodbye.”
In an email to the Journal sent Sept. 18, City Administrator Scot Simpson said going back to 2022, the mayor and several city staff members, including himself, have met with Linscott numerous times to understand and address his concerns. He said officials and staff have spent “significant time” corresponding with Linscott informally, by email, through one formal appeal, and through formal information requests fulfilled by the city clerk and police department.
“The city has professionally, transparently, and promptly responded to Mr. Linscott’s concerns. Mr. Linscott’s formal and informal claims of wrongdoing by officials or employees of the City have not been substantiated,” Simpson wrote. “Mr. Linscott’s comments that no one will listen to his complaints seem odd in light of the considerable and inordinate amount of time City officials and staff have spent assisting Mr. Linscott.
“The City is continuing its work to expand housing availability in River Falls and operates the River Falls Housing Authority. Our police officers are actively serving members of the community including referrals for health and human services to those in need. We continue to work with unsheltered community members on an individualized basis.”
He also provided a one-page summary of the city’s approach to homelessness in the community, penned Nov. 29, 2022 and released to the public at that time.
Alderperson Nick Carow, who addressed Linscott’s claims during the Aug. 22 city council meeting, wrote in an email to the Journal Sept. 18 that he thinks some individuals are so loose with the facts that it would be a full-time position to count their half truths, fibs and tall tales. Speaking as an elected official, the city stays on the high road when communication becomes contentious and divisive, he said.
“How can the high road be taken when month after month public comment is dominated by one person’s fabrications?” Carow asked.
He provided the example of Linscott posting on Facebook Sept. 17 about a council colleague promising to get him on the agenda, which he said is impossible because they don’t have the sole authority to do so. He said Linscott also wrote this position was Simpson’s first job out of college.
“Mr. Simpson both had substantial career experience prior to coming to the city, and is also highly esteemed both professionally with ICMA, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, peers, various boards he sits with,” Carow said.
Carow also questioned why Linscott doesn’t address Clifton’s policy on homelessness, since he lives there, or if he has contacted his state representatives, who help drive poverty and economic instability policies.
“Why not be involved with coming to the table instead of just shouting from the rooftops?” Carow said. “Facebook and social media give people a ready opportunity to complain about their neighbor, community, instead of investing in programs and organizations already present. Show up and speak up, but berating Police Chief, City Admin, Council President and the Mayor is not effective to do this.”
Carow believes people should not judge success in helping people experiencing homelessness by one single policy. He also defended the “legal and moral” actions of the people with whom he serves.
“I know we have a compassionate police force,” he said. “I know we have agencies with the ability to help people in economic hardship. River Falls Housing Authority has more units then New Richmond, Hudson, Prescott, and Ellsworth.
“Our Neighbors Place started in 2009, as community leaders over 14 years ago sought to create a better future. Since 2016 ONP has helped at least 18 families, 26 adults and 46 kids find stable, permanent housing. In 2021 over 2,460 backpacks went to hungry children and 553 guests received vouchers at The Closet, with over 4,080 assisted through the Day Center.
“River Falls Community Food Pantry distributes more than 270,000 pounds of food serving 2,000 households.
“In 2022 ARC distributed $188,000 dollars to families and individuals to meet basic needs.”
Carow lamented that Facebook community pages allows people to write what they want and go mostly unchecked.
“Between Facebook posts, and they are plentiful, and public comment and direct comment I think all claims of being a believable grown up have failed,” Carow said. “And all of this isn’t even really talking about real strategies to help real people … I want to state clearly my respect and admiration for our law enforcement and community policing efforts. These are good people doing good work.”
More public comment
After Linscott spoke Sept. 12, two homeless community members stepped up to the mic: Ayanna Raven Benitez and Patrick Callan.
“The city can keep on with the gaslighting and adversarial approach; meanwhile, we are clearly saying our concerns are valid, can hold up to scrutiny on the merits and if allowed a genuine chance to be presented, it gets even harder after people are driven out of River Falls and once this camping ordinance went into effect with selective enforcement, they are no longer here to say anything,” Benitez said. “The city has demonstrated an ongoing pattern of conduct targeting marginalized people, without any legitimate or lawful cause. Particularly if homeless, but especially if they are black. The city of River Falls is in fact what is called a Sundown Town … getting to the truth of things is uncomfortable and takes work. I embrace it.
“What I see the city do is double down and pursue ways to control who can be heard or not, disparaging any real dissent and willing to be quite extreme. They’ve lost the plot on governance. It’s their option to say whatever they like without limit, but unless the members act constructively to address the issues we raise by including us as a primary source, the realities people have been enduring will remain obfuscated.”
Callan said he hasn’t found any examples of people attacking, spreading misinformation and making claims that couldn’t be backed up with available and supporting evidence.
“The people you are talking about who shared these concerns and do mutual aid, outreach and advocacy on their own time, become intimately aware of what goes on,” Callan said. “Most of them are not in a position where they can take a personal risk involved in speaking up. When someone brings something to your attention that is a very real and serious problem that isn’t going away, is this what they are to expect from you? Even when they go out of their way to find solutions you like, you’ll just be instructed to not talk to them? You’ll say they have no evidence but won’t look at their evidence? But I digress.
“Of course River Falls doesn’t have a homelessness problem. Only homeless people have a homelessness problem. You say there are people experiencing homelessness in our community and that they matter, should be seen, heard, helped. That’s fine. But are there human rights and legal rights recognized and are they treated the same as anyone else who lives here?”
Callan said he loves his adopted city, but has been put in a bind in which he can’t leave because of built up fines and damage.
Unitarian Universalist Society invited Linscott to speak at its service Sunday, Sept. 17. See next week’s Journal for a full report.