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Support needed for stable housing


By the Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Board An estimated 20,000 people – including many children – are homeless in Wisconsin, as winter approaches. Living out of cars, in tents or on the street, they need a hand up from their quiet suffering.

State government is at a critical point in addressing this chronic, costly and morally distressing problem. In recent years, bipartisan support for a stepped-up response has led to promising results. This includes the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which was created by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and is now led by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The council has endorsed the state’s first coordinated and comprehensive action plan, called “A Hand and A Home: Foundations for Success.” The state budget includes $7.5 million in additional spending over two years.

But, as a special report, “Homelessness in Wisconsin | State At A Crossroads,” showed, a lot more must be done.

Most pressing, are eight bills in the state Senate that will implement much of the state’s “A Hand and A Home” blueprint. Republicans primarily drafted the bills, with the GOP-run Assembly approving them in June. Evers is eager to sign them.

The Republican-controlled Senate should advance this important legislation soon, without playing political games. As Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said in the special report, simply throwing money at the problem, isn’t the answer or goal.

Instead, the $7.5 million will be targeted to efforts that have shown promise. Steineke and other homeless advocates also want to measure state and local efforts carefully, for clear results and accountability.

The eight bills and $7.5 million, which the Legislature’s budget committee must release, will do the following:

• Provide short-term grants or loans to defray housing costs.

• Help struggling people find housing.

• Create more beds at emergency shelters.

• Pay for skills training to escape homelessness.

• Assist landlords with repairs to low-cost housing.

• Expand grants for housing and related services.

These efforts alone won’t eliminate homelessness across Wisconsin. But they will improve the lives of many, including thousands of children, who, research shows, do worse at school when they lack stable living situations.

Front and center in the state effort, is a proven strategy known as “housing first,” in which homeless people get immediate access to housing without requirements, such as sobriety. Diversion and prevention are key, too.

“Homelessness in Wisconsin | State At A Crossroads,” was reported by the Wisconsin State Journal’s Dean Mosiman, with graphics editor Jason Klein helping with research, and photography by Amber Arnold and John Hart. Other contributors included Emily Pyrek of the La Crosse Tribune, Heather Graves and Ben Rodgers of The Press Times in Green Bay, and Adam Rogan of The Journal Times in Racine.

The reporting project sprung from a symposium last summer, facilitated by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, which distributed the special report to nearly 200 member newspapers across the state. The WNA will host another symposium in Madison, to bring together business people, lawmakers, service providers, homeless advocates and the media, to encourage further progress.

Wisconsin’s economy is strong. But many communities lack affordable housing for low-income workers and residents on fixed incomes, such as Social Security or disability payments. Wisconsin needs a new and dynamic approach – with greater incentives for the private sector to work with governments and non-profits – to create housing for those earning little more than minimum wage.

Wisconsin spends far less than neighboring states, to prevent and relieve homelessness. Greater investment will come with Senate passage of the eight bills. Wisconsin also should revisit its tenant laws, and consider financial insurance for landlords who rent to people with risky credit and past evictions. Steineke wants to pilot a housing program for people freed from jail or prison.

Lawmakers must continue to work together and accelerate state efforts, so more people who desperately need stable housing, can find it.