Wisconsin Republicans on Wednesday introduced a package of bills aimed at reducing homelessness throughout the state. The legislation comes along with a set of proposals in Gov. Scott Walker's 2017-19 budget designed to tackle the issue.
"These bills … give us an opportunity to bring the right people to the table, to access more and different resources and to try alternative approaches in order to end homelessness for those 5,800 people on any given night in Wisconsin that lack a place to call home," said Carrie Poser, coordinator for the Wisconsin Balance of State Continuum of Care, an organization that deals with homelessness throughout Wisconsin.
One bill, authored by Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, would create an Interagency Council on Homelessness led by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. The council would include secretaries of the eight state agencies that receive homelessness funding and would add a position within the state Department of Administration to oversee the council's activities.
Joe Volk, executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, said the creation of the council would "institutionalize progress."
"I’ve been involved in this issue for 35 years. I can tell you this is the first time in 25 years that this issue has been talked about in this building," Volk said.
Another bill, authored by Darling and Rep. Pat Snyder, R-Schofield, would allow money previously allocated for transitional housing to be used for other housing models and would allow homelessness prevention funds to be used in areas with the greatest need.
Those changes would "give us the ability to make each dollar stretch farther and do more with existing resources to combat homelessness," Snyder said.
A proposal authored by Darling and Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, R-Oak Creek, would create a $75,000 grant program for a municipality to pilot a program based on the "Better Way" program in Albuquerque. The program would give homeless people jobs cleaning up parks and public spaces with the goal of moving them into permanent employment.
The municipality would be required to provide $50,000 to go along with the grant. A similar proposal was included in Walker's budget.
The fourth piece of legislation, from Darling and Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, would allow the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to prioritize chronically homeless people on the wait list for federal Housing Choice Vouchers, known as Section 8 housing.
Asked about issues with capacity in Section 8 housing, Steineke acknowledged the package of bills doesn't address it. That's a long-term problem lawmakers would like to address in the future, he said.
It's "far too easy" to pretend homelessness is a "big-city problem," Steineke said, but it exists throughout the state. Of the 5,800 people in the state on a given night who don't have a home, Poser said, 60 percent are from counties outside of Dane, Milwaukee and Racine, and half are families rather than single individuals.
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, accused Republicans of offering "cosmetic solutions."
"This is just another legislative agenda item Republicans can check off their list, pat themselves on the back for, and tell the people of Wisconsin they tackled the tough issues when they’re running for reelection, meanwhile not a single piece of this legislation will do anything to help someone who’s sleeping on the street tonight," Sargent said in a statement.
Walker's budget, currently working its way through the state Legislature, would also give 10 homeless shelters $50,000 grants to provide intensive case management services for homeless families and would transfer a program that serves the homeless population from the Department of Administration to the Department of Health Services to help connect homeless people with mental health services.