Gov. Tony Evers is proposing to spend $15.7 million annually on initiatives to directly support the homeless in the 2021-23 biennium, by far the largest investment in state history.
Evers’ proposals, including $11.5 million in new annual spending, deliver increased or new funding for prevention of homelessness, diversion from shelter, shelter support, housing assistance, case management and more to address a serious challenge that’s only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even under what I call ‘the normal state of crisis,’ the needs of people who were homeless or facing housing instability were quite dire,” said Michael Basford, director of the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness. “What is proposed represents a broad-spectrum approach towards creating affordable housing, addressing issues of housing stability and moving people from homelessness into permanent housing.”
The state has focused new attention on homelessness since the mid-2010s, but the Legislature has not delivered significant funding increases, with direct spending around $4 million. The bulk of what would have been the state’s largest dollar increase ever to address homelessness, which had the support of Evers, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Assembly, stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate last year.
Joseph Volk, executive director of the nonprofit Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, said Evers’ new proposal is both compassionate and comprehensive.
“He really has his pulse on the way the people of Wisconsin are hurting and this budget will move us to attacking homelessness at a new level and in a holistic way,” Volk said.
Volk said homelessness is a problem in all of the state’s 72 counties and that nearly half of Wisconsin’s homeless are families with children. The coalition estimates that on any given night in Wisconsin nearly 20,000 persons are homeless.
“The pandemic has only increased the needs of the homeless in Wisconsin,” he said. “Evictions are up, the number of people sleeping outside has increased, and the number of shelter beds in the state have been cut in half due to social distancing requirements.”
Specifically, Evers is proposing for each fiscal year:
- $1 million for the Homelessness Prevention Program.
- $500,000 for the creation of a new diversion program.
- $700,000 for the State Shelter Subsidy Grant.
- $5 million for the Housing Assistance Program.
- $500,000 for the Homeless Case Management Services Grant.
- $250,000 for the Skills Enhancement Grant at the Department of Children and Families.
- $2 million to create a new housing quality standards grant to increase the availability of quality affordable housing.
- $600,000 to create a grant for housing navigation.
- $1 million for a new “Wisconsin Housing for Heroes” rental assistance program for homeless veterans.
In addition, the governor is proposing a series of initiatives intended to provide additional support for affordable housing availability and housing stability.
“The ultimate solution to homelessness is homes,” Volk said. “Affordable housing is a necessary tool to end homelessness in Wisconsin.”
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, who has become a champion on addressing homelessness among Republicans in the Legislature, applauded Evers’ proposals.
“As someone who has fought for our homeless population for years, I’m encouraged to see Gov. Evers has followed our lead and included critical funding to address homelessness in his budget,” Steineke said. “Working to ensure everyone in Wisconsin has a place to call home shouldn’t be a partisan issue. I’m glad to see the governor agrees.”
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, could not be reached.
Meanwhile, Steineke and Sen Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, are reintroducing legislation to deliver funding that stalled in the Senate last year. The previous bills, based on proposals by the interagency council’s action plan to end homelessness, passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly and were echoed in Evers’ first budget. But the eight bills, which would have provided $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.
Support for the governor’s budget proposals and the legislation is critical, Basford said.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s “Out of Reach 2020” report shows that Wisconsin has a shortage of over 125,000 rental homes affordable and available for extremely low-income renters, he said. Further, data collected from the 2020 community point-in-time counts show that on any given night there are over 4,500 homeless persons in emergency shelter, transitional housing, safe havens, or unsheltered – including nearly 350 homeless veterans, he said.
The Institute for Community Alliances showed 19,020 people in the state were served by programs for street outreach, homelessness prevention, emergency shelter, safe haven, transitional housing, and rapid re-housing and permanent housing programs, he said.
“I am very certain that ending homelessness as we know it in Wisconsin continues to be a goal that transcends partisanship,” Basford said. “The pandemic crisis put this issue in sharp relief for many thousands of vulnerable Wisconsinites and we are committed to making sure that bouncing back means putting people in housing and keeping people in housing. Gov. Evers’ budget will make this a reality for many.”
TINY HOUSE VILLAGE