As Wisconsin uses tens of millions in federal money to address homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Republican-controlled state Legislature has largely refused to make new financial commitments of state resources.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Gov. Tony Evers’ administration has launched a series of initiatives, including an initial 60-day moratorium on rental evictions and housing foreclosures, and tapped federal funds for rental assistance, food aid, schooling for homeless children, housing initiatives, support for veterans and more.
The federal funds are still flowing.
But in February, Evers also proposed spending $15.7 million annually on initiatives to directly support the homeless in the current two-year budget, by far the largest investment in state history. The GOP-controlled budget committee, however, rejected almost all of the new funding.
The Legislature has also declined to set a committee hearing on bipartisan legislation introduced by two GOP lawmakers to deliver funding that stalled in the Senate last year.
“The Legislature’s response to homelessness before and during the pandemic has been beyond disappointing,” said Michael Basford, director of the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, who has become a champion on addressing homelessness among Republicans in the Legislature and one of the lawmakers who reintroduced the stalled legislation, said awareness continues to be a challenge.
“Too many people still think of homelessness as a problem only present in large cities when in fact it’s present all across our state, even in the smallest of towns,” Steineke said. “Until there’s broad willingness to look at this problem as one that affects all 72 counties, it will continue to be an uphill task to make sweeping policy advances.”
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not respond to requests for comment.
Systems are strained
The interagency council’s action plan to end homelessness was developed under Republican leadership in response to bipartisan recognition of the persistence of homelessness in Wisconsin.
Despite the influx of federal money, the problems the initiative was intended to address haven’t gone away.
On any given night, there are about 20,000 people in Wisconsin with no adequate place to sleep, according to the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness.
“In most ways, the pandemic didn’t create new challenges for homelessness but further highlighted issues surrounding homelessness and the need for action in addressing them,” Basford said. “We are seeing increases in unsheltered homelessness across the state.”
Adding to the challenge, in many communities it’s become harder during the pandemic to identify and count the homeless, Basford said.
“To adhere to public health guidelines, many shelters have had to reduce capacities, stop taking new clients or close entirely,” he said. “The result of this has lower numbers of people being served by shelters. Additionally, the pandemic resulted in fewer volunteers for the annual Point in Time count, meaning fewer homeless people were counted.”
In Dane County alone:
- About 100 homeless people are being housed in hotels.
- Between 60 and 70 people are camping at
- on Madison’s East Side, while a dozen more are camping at the Starkweather Creek Conservation Area on the East Side. Many others remain without shelter.
- The Salvation Army of Dane County’s facility at 4502 Milwaukee St. on the East Side is hosting 35 families.
- Sixty women are staying nightly at the Salvation Army’s main shelter at 630 E. Washington Ave. on the Near East Side.
- About 100 men are staying nightly at the city’s temporary shelter in the former Fleet Services building at 200 N. First St. on the East Side.
The numbers don’t include many other homeless, including a largely unseen population of individuals, and often families, who have no place of their own to stay so they double up with friends or relatives, or pay to stay in motels because they can’t get an apartment.
In the Madison schools, about 540 students have so far been identified as homeless this school year, with the number expected to surpass 1,000, said Jani Koester, who helps coordinate services for homeless families and students in the Madison School District.
“The end of the eviction moratorium is having some effect on numbers and those are trickling in,” she said. “Most of these are first-time homeless families.”
The district’s numbers don’t include adults, very young children or parents under 18, who usually drop out of school.
Housing a priority
The big challenge remains the availability of affordable housing, officials said.
“A quarter of renters in Wisconsin, and a third of those renters in the labor force, are extremely low-income, and two-thirds of those households are severely cost-burdened or spending over 30-50% of their income on housing,” said Brad Paul, executive director of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association. “More than 300,000 renters, pre-pandemic, paid over half their income on housing.
“Over the long haul, that is practically a built-in feeder system to homelessness,” he said.
“Madison’s housing challenges, already daunting before the pandemic, are even more so now,” said Jim O’Keefe, city community development director. “People are struggling to financially retain housing and folks who are experiencing homelessness are having a hard time navigating the housing market to find available units. We need to address homelessness as a community, and housing opportunities must be provided to those in vulnerable situations.”
The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the state has a shortage of more than 119,000 units for extremely low-income households seen as making 30% of the county median income, Basford said. In Dane County, that’s up to $27,900 for a family of three.
The federal assistance is helping.
The state is receiving over $89 million in federal funds this year to support housing development projects, Basford said. In August, Evers also announced a $200 million Neighborhood Investment Fund grant program for which local governments can apply for funding for affordable housing initiatives and other uses, he said.
“The current and proposed investments from the federal government and through the Wisconsin Neighborhood Investment Fund will certainly be helpful, but much more is going to be needed,” Basford said.
‘Toxicity’ at Capitol
At some point, the federal money will dry up.
“The funds from the federal government are one-time with a limited use and specifically tied to pandemic response,” Basford said. “Once they’re gone there will be no renewal of those funding sources.”
But efforts to increase the state’s own commitment to homelessness remain stalled.
In February, Evers proposed spending $15.7 million annually on initiatives to directly support the homeless in the current two-year budget. The proposals, including $11.5 million in new annual spending, were to be focused on preventing homelessness, diversion from shelter, shelter support, housing assistance, case management and more.
The governor also recommended a $50 million grant program that would provide funding to local municipalities to encourage the development of additional low-cost housing in the state.
But the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee rejected almost all of the items and provided just $600,000 annually in new funds compared to the governor’s $5 million a year for the housing assistance program.
In March, Steineke and Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, reintroduced legislation to deliver funding that stalled in the Senate in 2020.
The legislation, based on proposals by the interagency council created in late 2017, passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly in 2019 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 new bill by Steineke and Bernier that combines the ones that stalled was referred to committee on March 5, and more than 200 days have passed without a public hearing.
“Convincing 132 members of the Legislature to invest millions of dollars in any one initiative is not an easy task,” Steineke said. “At the end of the day, we were successful in securing new funds to help provide housing to those who need it the most.”
More must be done, Paul said, adding, “the toxicity in the Capitol has devastating consequences on people’s lives.”