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HOMELESSNESS IN WISCONSIN

‘It’s just morally wrong': Gains in fighting homelessness bring hope, but progress not assured

From the Special report | Homelessness in Wisconsin: State at the crossroads series
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Milwaukee homeless tent city

Members of the homeless community gather in a makeshift tent city under the I-794 freeway in downtown Milwaukee earlier this month. Thousands of Wisconsinites, from Superior to Beloit and La Crosse to Milwaukee, are homeless, spending nights in shelters, outside, in vehicles and motels, and doubled up with others.

Despite promising efforts, the relentless trauma and indignities of homelessness remain a daily reality for perhaps 20,000 men, women and children in Wisconsin.

In booming Madison, the homeless live out of vehicles and tents, double up in apartments or motel rooms, or sleep outside on streets lined with posh bars and restaurants surrounding the majestic glow of the Capitol dome. Every day an average 225 people, including 46 children, seek assistance at The Beacon homeless Day Shelter on Madison's Near East Side.

In Downtown Milwaukee, a tent city of the homeless has spread below a tangle of massive freeway overpasses in a city where 5,163 students in the state's largest school district were homeless in 2018. 

The La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness has identified 275 adults as homeless, a steady number for eight months. In Green Bay, a shelter helps thousands of homeless annually, with one in five between 18 and 24 years old, leaving advocates concerned about where those young people will be in their 30s and 40s. In Beloit schools, nearly 9% of the student population was homeless last school year.

The numbers tell only part of the story. The weight of homelessness falls disproportionately on people of color. Blacks account for 6.4% of the state population but 39% of those receiving homeless services in 2018. The disparity is even worse in Dane County, where blacks comprise 5.1% of the population but represent 53% of those receiving homeless services last year.

"It could happen to any of us," said Joseph Volk, executive director of the nonprofit Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, noting that many are a job loss, medical emergency or car repair bill away from losing housing. "We should not have people in our midst living in cars and tent cities. It's just morally wrong."

One way or another, society pays for homelessness, although spending a little now can save a lot later, studies show. A chronically homeless person cost taxpayers an average of $35,600 annually, but the expense is cut in half when that person is placed in housing with support services, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

In the past two years, after a lack of leadership and inaction by both parties spanning decades, Wisconsin created an Interagency Council on Homelessness, followed by an action plan that called for a "Housing First" approach -- in which homeless people are given immediate access to housing without prerequisites like sobriety or a willingness to participate in services -- and recommendations to more than double the state's comparatively meager $3.3 million in annual direct funding for homeless programs.

Advocates and service providers wonder whether the bipartisan progress on the issue can be sustained.

Wisconsin's homeless

The most pressing issue, they say, is passage in the Republican-controlled Senate of a series of bills recommended by the council. The measures were passed by the GOP-controlled Assembly and echoed in Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' first budget, but they stalled in the Legislature's GOP-controlled budget committee. 

At stake is $7.5 million in additional spending over two years, the state's largest dollar increase ever to directly address homelessness.

"I wish we weren’t still bogged down in the legislative process, but it's incredibly important for the Legislature to pass these bills, and I hope they get to my desk soon so we don’t experience any further delay in the distribution of funds," Evers said. 

Potential for progress

As the bills await action, the potential for progress has never been more apparent.

After a long lack of advocacy at the Capitol, the Coalition Against Homelessness organized in early 2015 and in mid-2016 released "A Roadmap to Ending Homelessness in Wisconsin." It provided specific policy and budget recommendations with a call to triple state funding. At the time, Wisconsin's $3.3 million in direct spending paled next to Minnesota's $44.3 million and Illinois' $49.5 million, the coalition said.

Then-Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican, embraced homelessness as a priority, and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, led the charge in the Assembly. As part of a set of bills pushed by Steineke and others, the Interagency Council was created, and former GOP Gov. Scott Walker signed the legislation in late 2017.

Kleefisch chaired the council, which includes the secretaries and directors of eight state agencies and representatives of four consortiums that serve the homeless in Dane, Milwaukee and Racine counties and one for the rest of the state.

In November 2018, the council produced a 30-page action plan, "A Hand and A Home: Foundations for Success," perhaps the state's most coordinated blueprint to prevent and curtail homelessness. It recommended a Housing First approach to homelessness and $3.75 million in new spending annually.

Democrats wanted more but unanimously supported the council and the action plan. "It can't be the end," said Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, who co-sponsored the legislation. "It has to be the beginning."

Racine homeless

Donaisha Bell, 18, and her 2-year-old son, Za'karion have been living at Racine's HALO shelter for the past few months. Bell is working two jobs, but is still homeless and will soon be leaving her native Racine to take advantage of a housing voucher in Illinois.

After taking office, Evers agreed to chair the council -- an encouraging sign for advocates -- and named Michael Basford, a former associate director of a Madison nonprofit housing provider and chairman of the Dane County Democratic Party, as the council's new director.

Early this year, Steineke and Republicans introduced legislation that mirrored recommendations in the council's action plan and Evers funded the moves in his proposed biennial budget for 2019-20.

To advocates, it looked like the state was finally making progress.

Eyes on the Senate

But in May, Republicans on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee blocked the plan. Instead, voting along party lines, members set aside $7.5 million over the next two years for anti-homelessness measures, slightly more than Evers sought, but detached the funding from specific programs.

Number of homeless people in Wisconsin

Now, with winter looming, the Senate is weighing the bills and the finance committee must still give approval before the money can be spent.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald wouldn't commit to passing the legislation, noting only that the measures are making their way through Senate committees.

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"Once they’re available for scheduling on the floor, we’ll have a conversation as a caucus to determine where support is at for individual bills,” Fitzgerald said.

If the bills become law, the interagency council should be a generator of policy ideas for lawmakers to consider funding, Steineke said.

The state also must address shortcomings in the council's plan which, while it embraces practices like Housing First and diversion efforts, doesn't provide goals, timelines or responsibilities, advocates say. By contrast, Minnesota's plan has detailed metrics and is updated every two years with a report on progress.

"That's something we're working on right now," Basford said. 

Meanwhile, the state must focus on prevention, permanent supportive housing, and training and jobs for those who lack skills and employment, Volk said. Direct funding for homelessness should rise to $30 million, he said.

Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, said she's focused on state laws to provide homeless youth with the resources they need. She said the fact that about 18,000 students in the state are classified as homeless under a federal law is "absolutely egregious."

Evers said his administration is working on homelessness challenges at multiple levels. "I’ve also tasked all my cabinet secretaries, folks at every agency, to find ways to connect the dots on this issue," he said.

'The same issue'

As he travels the state in his new job, Basford said he hears a common theme. "I thought I'd be finding out about a lot of differences," he said. "I'm surprised by the number of similarities. Everybody has the same issue -- housing, particularly for those making less than 30% of county median income."

When compared to its neighbors, Wisconsin has the highest rate of low-income families who pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent, and the second-highest rate for low-income homeowners, according to a recent 40-page report by the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

"We have an affordable housing crisis," Subeck said.

In 2009, the Legislature allowed cities to keep tax incremental financing (TIF) districts that were set to close open for an extra year, with the revenue available for low-cost housing efforts.

How Wisconsin is faring in goals to end homelessness

But rising construction costs and difficulties getting financing are making it harder to subsidize housing, especially for those with lower incomes, WHEDA executive director Jaoquin Altoro said. Rents at 30% of a county's median income don't cover costs to operate housing developments, he and others said. Also, lower income developments sometimes face neighborhood opposition while vouchers and rental subsidies are becoming more scarce, he said. 

"It's going to take partnerships to the extent we've never seen between the state, counties, municipalities and private developers," Basford said. "We have to get private developers to buy into putting their work into this housing. We have to increase incentives. What that exactly means, I don't know yet."

While more housing is critical, it must also be combined with support services to be effective, advocates say.

The state's landlord-tenant laws also remain a big factor driving homelessness is the state. 

In the past eight years, landlord-friendly changes to state laws have given Wisconsin housing providers more power to reject prospective tenants and easier ways to oust current ones. With a scarcity of low-cost housing, those with spotty housing or credit histories, convictions or evictions -- even if they have income or jobs -- struggle to secure housing.

"I absolutely believe we have to revisit tenant-landlord law," Basford said. Volk agreed, adding that he's not sure what changes might look like but believes there must be incentives to get housing providers to the table.

A top priority

Much of what happens next rests on leadership and, in a divided government, something even rarer: bipartisanship.

"Addressing homelessness and housing insecurity has been and continues to be among my administration’s top priorities," Evers said. "We’ve demonstrated since day one our willingness to work with Republicans to end homelessness as we know it in Wisconsin. I think it's incredibly important for me as governor to set the tone that this is a critical issue which requires all hands on deck, and that it is an issue I intend to lead on."

Downtown Madison homeless

Like many homeless people, Joe Ehr spends much of his time near the state Capitol.

In July, Evers, Basford and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority announced $500,000 -- funds available annually -- for "shovel-ready" projects to help fight homelessness. The state received 44 responses with requests totaling $3 million, and in August, the council awarded $500,000 to 13 projects across the state.  

"We see homelessness. We see the problem," Steineke said. "Everybody's got similar goals, just different approaches in accomplishing them.

"We can't just throw a bunch of money around and hope it will solve the problem," he said. "We have to prove concepts and that they are having a lasting effect."

Volk, who also said good metrics are crucial in determining how to spend taxpayer dollars, said homelessness is the rare issue that should attract bipartisan support. 

"The people of Wisconsin are a decent and caring people and they will demand that our politicians not play partisan games with people and children living outside in the depth of a Wisconsin winter," Volk said. "They will demand that they come together on a bipartisan basis, to work together to end homelessness in Wisconsin."

Special report | Homelessness in Wisconsin: State at the crossroads

For a while, state, county and local leaders seemed to finally be on the same page when it came to combating homelessness. But with winter coming, major legislation remains stalled. And the early promise of bipartisan cooperation on the issue is not guaranteed.

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