The pandemic has only exacerbated homelessness across Wisconsin. More people are living in tent encampments in Madison, Milwaukee, Wausau, Green Bay and La Crosse, according to the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness.
“That’s a hard thing to quantify,” said Joe Volk, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group. “But clearly it’s there.”
Shelters can’t accept as many people because of social distancing rules. Churches can’t line the floors of their basements with mattresses anymore. And with winter approaching, advocates for the homeless fear people in need—including single mothers with children—may be forced to risk exposure to the novel coronavirus to stay warm.
The dilemma demands more attention and action as World Homeless Day was marked earlier this month. Please help if you can. Donate to a local shelter or the WCAH. Tell public officials—those who want your vote this fall—to prioritize desperate people with nowhere to go. Praising the good work done so far is important, too.
Gov. Tony Evers has steered $30 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to emergency rent assistance for lower-income people. That’s kept evictions fairly stable, Volk said, despite higher unemployment. President Donald Trump’s executive order halting many evictions through the end of the year also has helped, though some Wisconsin counties are being more strict about the rule than others. A potential eviction must be related to the novel virus for the moratorium to apply. Congress and the White House should compromise on another relief bill as efforts to develop a vaccine continue.
The pandemic has exposed the folly of the state Senate failing to act on a $7.5 million package of bipartisan homeless bills earlier this year. The Republican-run Assembly wisely and overwhelming approved eight bills, which included short-term housing grants, help finding apartments and assistance for landlords to repair low-cost units. But the GOP-led Senate stubbornly ignored all but one proposal, which expanded some shelter beds.
“In hindsight,” Volk said, “that was foolish when you look at where we are now with the economic pain being felt around the state.”
Yet helping tens of thousands of homeless people across Wisconsin requires more than money. It demands all of us to recognize and support the dire need for affordable workforce housing—including in our neighborhoods. As a special report, “Homelessness in Wisconsin: State at the crossroads,” by the Wisconsin State Journal and other newspapers showed last year, many people can’t afford a place to live even though they have jobs.
Communities large and small need more affordable units for low-wage workers. Local economies and employers depend on it. In Madison, momentum to fund and find a suitable location for a modern men’s shelter absolutely must continue. The goal is to provide more than a roof over people’s heads. It’s to steer them to employment opportunities and better lives.
Failing to ease the plight of the homeless across Wisconsin will cost taxpayers more over time than dealing with the challenge now. That’s because desperate people often wind up requiring expensive social services, emergency health care, police attention or even jail if they don’t get help.
This morally distressing problem can’t be ignored—especially now, with the coronavirus complicating relief efforts and risking innocent lives.