Republican bills target homelessness in Wisconsin, draw immediate criticism from Democrats

MADISON -- Republican lawmakers introduced four bills Wednesday, April 12th to address homelessness issues in Wisconsin, drawing immediate criticism from Democrats who blasted the legislation as cosmetic solutions.

Joe Volk, executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, praised the bills at a news conference, saying lawmakers have gone years without addressing the issue. Among the bills are measures that would create a homelessness council and establish grants for cities to help the homeless find work.

Hours later, Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent released a scathing statement.

"It's appalling that these cosmetic solutions are the best Republicans can muster to address Wisconsin's homelessness epidemic," she said. "What are we supposed to say to a high schooler who doesn't have a home to go home to tonight? 'Don't worry, Wisconsin has a Council on this now'?"

Sen. Alberta Darling, who sponsored all of the bills, said in a news release they focus on collaboration among agencies and increasing flexibility to address homelessness.

"Providing a place to sleep doesn't go far enough to address the problems facing many Wisconsin families," she said. "Our goal is to streamline and simplify the process to make sure people get the services they need to get off the streets and not go back."

But Democrats weren't convinced. Sargent said she plans to introduce legislation of her own. Democratic Rep. Lisa Subeck, who previously worked as a housing coordinator and homeless shelter case manager in Madison, said lawmakers could have a bigger impact by addressing affordable housing shortages and low wages.

"I'm sad we aren't looking at the bigger picture and looking at 'big and bold' solutions to homelessness," Subeck said, borrowing a line from Republican Gov. Scott Walker. "It's like we're paying lip service to it but we're not putting in the resources that we need to put in."

The Republicans' proposals include:

- A bill to create an Interagency Council on Homelessness chaired by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch that includes agency officials and representatives from organizations that serve the homeless.

- A bill that would give the housing authority the ability to pilot a program that prioritizes chronically homeless people on the waitlist for federal housing vouchers. Rep. Treig Pronchinske said the current waitlist contains almost 5,000 people.

- A measure that allows the Department of Administration to award grants of up to $75,000 to municipalities to help the homeless find work, but municipalities would have to match at least $50,000 of the grant.

- A bill that would remove restrictions on money allocated to transitional housing and eliminate the requirement that the Department of Administration reasonably balance grants and loans related to affordable housing among geographic areas of the state.

Republican legislators announced the measures at a news conference with Volk and Carrie Poser, coordinator of the Wisconsin Balance of State Continuum of Care, a nonprofit organization responsible for distributing federal housing funds to 69 of Wisconsin's 72 counties.

"On any given night, there are over 5,800 people in Wisconsin that don't have a place to call home," Poser said. "They're sleeping in shelters, cars, under bridges, in caves and even in storage units."