Judith A. Anderson
Ralph G. Bluhm
Stephanos “Steve” Christos
Daniel M. Haas
Keith Allan Lutz
Geraldine J. “Gerrie” Melchi
Gerald O. “Jerry” Neinfeldt
Maurice M. Philumalee
The Rev. Tanya Sadagopan invites everyone to bring their best ideas on how to make Janesville a better place.
On Saturday, Oct. 19, the First Congregational United Church of Christ will host a “Love Your Neighbor” social innovation challenge.
During the free event, the church will provide $5,000 in seed money to five innovative projects.
The daylong workshop features mentors who will be on hand to coach individuals and teams as they develop ideas.
Then innovators will pitch their ideas to a panel of judges.
“There’s no preconceived notion about what it is we are expecting,” said Sadagopan, pastor of the church.
Ideas can be anything with a positive impact on the community. They can involve youth, the environment or business but are not limited to those areas.
They also don’t have to be big.
“A lot of times, the ideas that get attention tend to be larger-scale projects,” Sadagopan said. “But small projects are important, too.”
Sadagopan is reaching out to all people in the city, especially those who are not normally part of the decision-making process.
“People may have ideas about how to make their community better, but they don’t have a platform or the financial resources to make it happen,” she said. “This is an opportunity for those with no experience to say, ‘I have an idea, and I think it can make a difference.’”
The invitation is groundbreaking because the church is the first faith-based organization in the country to offer such an opportunity, Sadagopan said.
“Churches generally think about ways to respond to difficulties or tragedies,” she said. “We are used to responding to events but not used to being proactive and generating opportunities of investment.”
First Congregational is partnering with EDGE, an innovation team of the United Church of Canada, and with the Catalyst Team of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ to bring the challenge to Janesville.
Money to fund the premier event comes from the Catalyst Team and First Congregational.
The Catalyst Team chose the church—in the heart of Janesville’s downtown—from all UCC churches in the state to host the first challenge.
“Janesville was selected because of the revitalization efforts going on downtown,” Sadagopan said. “There’s the revitalization of Main Street and the riverfront, plus a new hotel going up.”
She called the selection “a vote of confidence in Janesville and its people.”
“We are hoping some new things come out of this,” Sadagopan said. “We are opening the door wider for innovators who may not think of themselves as innovators.”
The Rev. Tisha Brown of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ brought the idea for a social innovation challenge to the Catalyst Team after hearing how such events worked in Canada.
She believes such challenges can make a difference in communities.
“We are trying to reach out to people who are change-makers,” Brown said. “We are trying to reach out to people who have a vision for their community for the future and who have the courage to share their ideas with other people.”
The amount of seed money is not huge.
“But any entrepreneur will tell you that every big idea starts small,” Brown said.
In addition, the challenge provides people who will stand alongside the innovators with ideas and words of encouragement, she said. Next year, two social innovation challenges are planned among state United Church of Christ churches.
“We hope the idea will spread in Wisconsin,” Brown said.
A representative of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, an ecumenical body, will attend the Janesville event. The representative will report back to the council, which could spread the idea to other denominations.
Brown grew up in Monroe and had friends who worked at Janesville’s General Motors plant.
“I saw all the things those families went through in the 1980s and the 1990s when I was in high school,” Brown said. “Janesville has a special place in my heart. The innovative challenge is a way for me to take the pain and heartache of that time and to build something new.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 of 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 1 in 5 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.
Also deeply troubling is the striking racial disparity in homelessness in Wisconsin. Blacks account for 6.5% of the state population but 39% of those receiving homeless services in 2018. The disparity is even worse in Dane County, where blacks are 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, Volk said. Investments, especially in housing, actually save taxpayer money, studies show. A chronically homeless person costs 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 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.
The most pressing issue, they say, is whether the Republican-controlled Senate will pass a series of bills recommended by the interagency 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.
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 compared to Minnesota’s $44.3 million and Illinois’ $49.5 million, the coalition said.
Meanwhile, 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 Legislature created the Interagency Council on Homelessness, and former 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 called, “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.”
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.
It looked like transcendent, bipartisan progress.
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.
Now, with winter looming, the Senate is weighing the bills, and the finance committee still must 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.
“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 while lawmakers advance the action plan and push policies and 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 offer 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 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.
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.”
In a recent 40-page report, the Wisconsin Realtors Association outlined a shortage of low-cost housing that has many dimensions. The state, when compared to its neighbors, has the highest rate of extreme rental cost burden for lower-income families and the second-highest rate of extreme cost burden for low-income homeowners, it says.
“We have an affordable housing crisis,” Subeck said.
In 2009, the Legislature allowed cities to keep open for an extra year tax incremental financing districts that were set to close with the revenue available for low-cost housing efforts.
But rising construction costs and difficulties getting financing are making it harder to subsidize housing, especially for those with lower incomes, WHEDA executive director Joaquin 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.”
Steineke, perhaps the Legislature’s strongest voice on homelessness, said, “I think we have to be open to different ideas.”
While more housing is critical, it must also be combined with support services to be effective, advocates say.
While the pending legislation would deliver $800,000 for prevention and diversion, the state’s landlord-tenant laws remain a big factor driving homelessness in the state, advocates say.
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.
Much of what happens next rests on leadership and, in a divided government, 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.”
In July, Evers, Basford and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority announced $500,000—funds available annually—could be had for “shovel ready” projects to help fight homelessness. The state received 44 responses with requests totaling $3 million, and in August, the council awarded the $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.”
After a few years living in a car, Janesville native Hunter Stewart said he’d started to find his feet in life.
For the past three years, Stewart had been stringing together what he calls a “house life,” a non-homeless life like other people he knows. He was getting by, renting modest homes, most recently a small house off of Milton Avenue.
He works 40 hours a week at two part-time jobs—at a retail shop at the Janesville Mall and at a sandwich shop. The jobs net him an average of $9.50 an hour, but Stewart and his 4-year-old cat, Garth, had been getting by.
That was until Stewart’s landlord dissolved Stewart’s handshake lease, gave Stewart two weeks to vacate and then sold the house to someone who promptly flipped the property and put it on the market with a $40,000 price tag, Stewart said.
Stewart said he can’t afford to buy the house he rented just a month ago. Sometimes, he said, it had been a strain just to pony up the $600 a month in rent for the one-bedroom house.
Now, Stewart’s homeless.
He’s 26. He’s got some college under his belt. He’s working. But in Janesville he can’t find a place to rent that he can afford.
Most local rentals, he said, now run a few hundred dollars a month more than the $600 he could barely afford before. Vacant apartments are so scarce that landlords can afford to be extra picky about renters, especially those who have a cat, he said.
He’s couch surfing at a relative’s home while he hunts for a place he can afford. Until about two weeks ago, he’d been living in a tent next to a row of shrubs in a friend’s backyard.
“I’ve fallen on hard times before and worked my way out of a hole that’s been dug. But I was getting used to house living. I thought I’d already triumphed over homelessness,” Stewart said.
“When this hit, it kind of sucked the air out all at once. I mean, it reality hits real hard. It’s like, at this point, at my age, I’m supposed to have some sort of responsibility, right?”
Stewart is one of a growing number of people who are homeless or borderline homeless struggling to find an affordable place to live in Janesville—a city that one recent statewide real estate report claims has perhaps the tightest housing market in Wisconsin.
Some city estimates are that the rental housing market is at least 500 units shy of demand.
Officials said more local renters are increasingly under financial strain as home sale prices—and in turn rents—continue to increase.
A growing proportion of local renters now spend at least 50% of their income on rent, city housing officials said. For some, rent cost increases have begun to outpace wage increases.
The developer of a proposed affordable housing apartment complex in downtown Janesville recently said that the company’s market surveys indicate affordable or rent-controlled apartments in Janesville have occupancy rates of “99 percent.”
U.S. Census data used to calculate housing affordability trends is nearly 3 years old. But Kelly Bedessem, the city’s housing services director, said she sees recent evidence the housing crunch is tightening like a noose for a growing segment of the working class.
Bedessem said multiple residents show up at the city Neighborhood Services Office every day saying they can’t find an apartment in Janesville, or, if they can, they can’t afford the rent. A growing portion of these people are families with at least one working adult. It’s an emerging class of people caught in a cycle of housing instability that’s driven by a shortage in rental units and rabid demand for housing across the board.
“I would say we get a half a dozen people that come in and say, ‘Help me, I can’t find anywhere to live.’ And they’re not even the city’s rental assistance clients. They’re people from all walks of the community,” Bedessem said.
There’s always a tent in somebody’s backyard.
Except when there isn’t.
Out of the tentJanesville resident Greg Rea let Stewart pop up a tent in the backyard of Rea’s residence on Bennett Street after he learned Stewart, his daughter’s friend and co-worker, had his apartment sold out from under him.
The tent was next to a stand of Arborvitae shrubs along the lot line of Rea’s residence, which is in a quiet neighborhood a few blocks from the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds.
Stewart’s tent arrangement worked fine as a stopgap until Rea got notice from the city that the tent was a code violation. Under city rules, tents cannot be used for living or housekeeping in most areas, including residential backyards.
Rea was ordered to “remove the tent and occupant from the backyard” within seven days or face daily fines between $25 and $100, according to a Sept. 19 code violation from the city Neighborhood and Community Services Department.
Rea, who is 65 and runs an automotive body shop on Janesville’s west side, said he complied.
Rea’s own home is small, and he said it couldn’t easily accommodate an impromptu roommate. He had run electricity to the tent and invited Stewart to use a bathroom in a detached garage whenever he needed to clean up.
“It was going to help him. At zero cost. Zero. Just to let him stay for a little bit, a few weeks and get back on his feet,” Rea said. “When police came to my house, and I got that (city) notice, I didn’t have the nerve to tell him. I couldn’t break it to him. I had to ask my daughter to do it.”
Rea said it irks him he got cited for a code violation, particularly when the city is allowing homeless people to sleep in their cars overnight at Traxler Park.
But Rea said what bothers him more is how quickly and easily a working person can have his housing choices reduced to a tent or a relative’s couch.
“I feel like somehow I failed that man (Hunter),” Rea said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I don’t understand how the heck we have gotten here. How have we got to where there’s no good ways we can help one another?”
Bedessem said police often find evidence of makeshift homeless encampments in wooded parts of the city, but she finds it unusual that a resident would erect a backyard tent to help someone who is homeless. Even so, Bedessem isn’t surprised the predicament presented itself.
“The backyard tent is unique, but I don’t think the scenario in and of itself is unique,” Bedessem said. “I think it’s just another example of a scenario of what happens when we don’t have enough housing, unfortunately.”
Bedessem said one woman recently came to the city seeking help after her landlord sold her apartment out from under her.
“The owner came in and said, ‘Hey, we sold this. You need to get out.’ Then, she had nowhere to go. And, you know, good luck trying to find a place right now on 30 days’ notice,” Bedessem said.
“I think it’s sad. The market is just tight. And so any house that’s for sale and it’s for a reasonable price, people are going to scoop them up.”
The city now is working with a Madison-area developer who plans River Flats, a 92-unit “affordable housing” apartment on North Franklin Street near downtown. That project would use a state tax credit to offer dozens more apartment units priced for low-income or moderate-income renters. But those units won’t be on the market until mid-2021, according to the developer.
Also by 2021, two other apartment developments on tap in Janesville could bring about 300 more mid-priced and luxury-priced apartments.
Bedessem hopes more rental units being added in the next two years will start to free up other apartment units and address the overall shortage of rental housing.
Only about 100 new, owner-occupied houses are being built a year in Janesville, and that’s as the area over the last five years has attracted more than 3,000 new jobs in the manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, and healthcare sectors alone.
The city is looking into some alternative housing solutions. It’s been in talks since early this year with Community Action on a plan to build three ”small homes”—500-square-foot homes—on the south side to serve as transitional housing for people at risk of homelessness. For that project, the city is eyeing a slice of the city-owned River Valley Park at Kellogg and Willard avenues, but the proposal faces headwinds.
After a neighborhood meeting hosted by Community Action and the city in August, Bedessem said two couples who live near the park began circulating a neighborhood petition opposing the small homes.
Bedessem said Community Action is hosting another neighborhood meeting this week to address the petition and people’s questions about the small homes.
Some neighbors don’t like the idea the houses would be built in a city park, Bedessem said.
“It’s kind of like a ‘don’t steal our park’ kind of a thing. It’s 100%‘we just don’t want it here. Oh, we think it’s a great idea, we just don’t want it here,’ is what they said. One of the opponents to the project said in what I perceived as somewhat threatening terms that they don’t want to be my neighbor,” Bedessem said.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s not very kind.’”