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Advocates say Wisconsin must act as surge of homelessness looms amid COVID19 pandemic
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Advocates say Wisconsin must act as surge of homelessness looms amid COVID19 pandemic

Homeless needs

A homeless man passes time on the corner of State and North Francis streets. A state coalition says urgent action is needed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the COVID-19 pandemic savaging the economy and eliminating jobs, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness wants the state to take decisive action to address a surge in homelessness it says may be unrivaled since the Great Depression.

The coalition, which has offered proposals that helped the state make advances on homelessness in recent years after decades of inaction, is now offering a three-pronged strategy to fund more services, create more low-income housing, and move the homeless into family-supporting jobs with an annual cost of $70 million.

“Think of it: One in five Wisconsinites are out of work and all but the most starry-eyed believe that many of those jobs will come back any time soon, and it is still possible that we could see another wave of the virus in the fall,” coalition executive director Joseph Volk said. “I think Wisconsinites are going to be horrified at what they see in terms of visible homeless. They will see homeless camps populated by families with children, and I think the public pressure for the state to act will be tremendous.”

Specifically, the coalition recommends:

  • The state Department of Health Services quickly submit a Medicaid plan amendment to the federal government, making all eligible homeless services Medicaid reimbursable, and that the state fund a match for those services.

The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority continue support for housing through low-income housing tax credits, but that WHEDA create other bonding for housing and that the state deliver $50 million annually for rental assistance subsidies targeted to those with mental health challenges and the homeless.

  • The governor direct the Department of Workforce Development to create a new program to reach the state’s homeless population and move them into family-supportive jobs with funding in the upcoming budget submission to the Legislature.

It’s unclear if those recommendations will resonate at the state Capitol.

“I always welcome input from the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness as we continue to work toward ending homelessness as we know it in Wisconsin,” said Michael Basford, director of the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness, which is chaired by Gov. Tony Evers. “Affordable housing development, expanded supportive services and jobs are all necessary in solving this challenge. As we move past the crisis of this pandemic, I look forward to digging into the details and working towards our shared goals.”

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, who sponsored and has become a strong advocate for legislation to address homelessness, declined comment.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not respond to an email request for comment.

‘Why not now?’

The coalition’s plan — outlined in a 14-page policy paper titled “Why Not Now?” — comes as the state struggles to aid the existing homeless population and the new coronavirus forces unemployment and threatens a wave of evictions and more homelessness.

But it also comes amid frustration among advocates that the bulk of what would have been the state’s largest dollar increase ever to address homelessness, which had the support of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled Assembly, stalled in the GOP-controlled state Senate this spring.

A series of bills based on proposals by the interagency council created in late 2017 and initially chaired by then Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly last year and were echoed in Evers’ first budget. But the eight bills, which would provide $7.5 million in new spending over two years, initially stalled in the budget committee and seven never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. The lone bill that passed provides $1 million in additional funding to a grant program that supports emergency homeless shelters over two years.

The coalition had been formulating recommendations on next steps for about a year, but didn’t want to make proposals until the Legislature acted on the bulk of the pending bills, Volk said.

Then, COVID-19 set in.

“Starting summer 2020 and beyond, there will be another pandemic. A statewide pandemic of homelessness,” the policy paper says. “The lines of people we now see waiting outside of food banks is the first shoe to drop. Housing issues and homelessness take a little longer to show up. It takes time for landlords to evict.

“While the Governors’ ban on evictions was wise it most likely only forestalled the inevitable – evictions are coming,” it says. “What may be a surge in homelessness unrivaled since the Great Depression is about to bare down upon us.”

The surge of homelessness will be both urban and rural, Volk said.

“As soon as the moratorium comes off we will see the first wave of evictions filings with actual evictions probably starting in July,” Volk said. “The increased federal unemployment of $600 a week will end in July with then the maximum benefit being only $370 per week. Not enough to live on. Plus, you have reduced shelter capacity because of the need of social distancing.”

This week, Evers announced the state would use $25 million in federal emergency funds for a rental assistance program to start in June. The coalition applauded the move but said it’s not enough to address the massive challenge ahead.

Funding, housing, jobs

The three-pronged strategy prioritizes new funding, housing and jobs.

The Medicaid plan amendment could pay for many homeless services, including case management, eviction prevention counseling, benefit advocacy, and housing navigation to help the homeless quickly re-enter the housing market, which makes homeless episodes shorter, less traumatic and less disruptive, the coalition says.

The proposed rent assistance program would help many very low income and homeless people and families achieve stable housing, it says. An annual allocation of $50 million, with an average individual subsidy of $500 a month, would aid at least 8,300 households, it says. As the state moves more homeless into stable employment, slots would open for recently homeless to enter the program.

Also, the coalition urges WHEDA to replicate bonding efforts in Minnesota. Between 2014 and 2017, Minnesota funded $225 million in general obligation bonds for affordable housing and created 2,428 units. In 2018 and 2019, Minnesota added another $140 million in bonding with projects in the pipeline.

Jobs must be part of the solution, the coalition says. Before the pandemic, 65.8% of able-bodied homeless adults were unemployed when they entered the state’s homeless service system, it says. Meanwhile, in recent years, rapid rehousing with rental assistance has become the way to move homeless families from shelter into permanent housing.

“The problem is, while the housing may be permanent, the rental assistance is not,” the coalition says. “Most of the rent subsidies run between one and two years duration. We are now sitting on a ticking homeless time bomb.”

But current workforce development services don’t reach the homeless, the coalition says. The state should expand services that address barriers, deliver more career path supports such as tuition assistance, provide financial literacy, and do outreach to connect with the homeless where they’re at, it says.

The new plan would replace the seven bills that did not pass, Volk said.

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