Four Republican lawmakers introduced this week a package of bills aimed at ending homelessness in Wisconsin, measures they say will address staffing, resource, housing, and employment issues that contribute to the state's homeless population.
Democrats immediately mocked the four bills, saying they were little more than window dressing designed for the 2018 state elections.
State Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), Rep. Pat Snyder (R-Schofield), Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek), and Rep. Treig Pronschinske (R-Mondovi) announced the legislative effort at a press conference.
"Our current system has a lot of people in different organizations working hard to provide the best care they can," Steineke said. "What's missing is coordination between our agencies. Bringing everyone to the table and making sure they're on the same page will drive our efforts to end homelessness."
To provide that coordination, one of the bills would create an Interagency Council on Homelessness within the state Department of Administration. According to Steineke, the council would consist of decision makers from state agencies and organizations that provide homelessness services, along with a designee appointed by Gov. Scott Walker.
The goal of the council would be to coordinate resources and goals to ensure that all avenues combating homelessness are being utilized.
The remainder of the legislative package is designed to give Wisconsinites the tools needed to move them toward independence and self-sustainability, the lawmakers said. For instance, a proposal authored by Rodriguez focuses on employment efforts.
"This bill takes a unique approach to ending homelessness by providing individuals with tools needed to find stable employment and begin contributing to their community," Rodriguez said. "Meaningful employment is arguably the most crucial step to ending homelessness."
Rodriguez's bill creates a pilot program through the Department of Administration to provide funding for a community program connecting homeless adults with permanent employment. Participating municipalities would be required to add financial support to be eligible to participate.
Rodriguez's bill is modeled after Albuquerque's "There's a Better Way" initiative that she said has experienced success in New Mexico.
"This is a fiscally responsible approach that has proven successful in other parts of the country and I'm confident in its potential here in Wisconsin," Rodriguez said. "This is an exciting opportunity for the state to partner with a local municipality to provide people with work experience and job skills that will lead to permanent employment and reduce homelessness."
The other two bills address housing issues. One bill would create a two-year pilot program to prioritize help for the chronically homeless who are on the waiting list for the Federal Housing Choice Voucher program, while the other would streamline housing grants to ensure that money is spent efficiently and where it is needed most.
Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, along with Steineke, has been leading Republican efforts to raise awareness of homeless issues in Wisconsin, and Kleefisch praised the four measures being introduced.
"Solving homelessness in the lives of real people takes a team approach, with the support of family, friends, employers, and social services," Kleefisch said. "Tackling homelessness as a policy matter also requires a team, and I'm pleased leaders in the Legislature are stepping forward and showing their commitment to ensuring dignity and opportunity for every Wisconsinite."
The lieutenant governor said the package of bills draws on the same core principles that have animated her own interest on the issue: common sense, collaboration between agencies, and a commitment to intensive wrap-around services to get people on their feet again.
She said the four bills also complement several initiatives related to homelessness in the governor's budget, including significant new resources for homeless shelters that serve families and for the Opening Avenues to Reentry Success (OARS) program for offenders re-entering society at the conclusion of their prison term.
Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) is also supporting the legislation, and she said the bills would not only help get the homeless off the streets but put them on a path to success. The homeless crisis can't be solved with just shelters, she said.
"Providing a place to sleep doesn't go far enough to address the problems facing many Wisconsin families," Darling 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. Right now, there are many agencies trying to fight homelessness. Our goal is to focus on collaboration and flexibility to create a collaborated effort to end and prevent homelessness."
Democrats scoffed at the package of legislation, with Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) saying the bills amounted to little more than an application of make up.
"It's appalling that these cosmetic solutions are the best Republicans can muster to address Wisconsin's homelessness epidemic," Sargent 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'?"
Sargent said the bills were just another legislative agenda item that Republicans could check off their list, pat themselves on the back for, and tell the people they tackled the tough issues when they're running for re-election, though nothing in the bills would actually do anything to help someone who's sleeping on the street.
"There's nothing here to address the fact that 28 percent of the homeless population in Wisconsin is under the age of 18, or that 46 percent are families with minor children - not a single stable housing opportunity is created by any of these bills or provides additional resources for persons or families experiencing homelessness," she said. "It's a slap in the face to real people suffering daily for Republicans to pretend they're addressing this issue and to check this off their to-do list."
Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) also issued a blistering response to the legislative package, saying it was simply a bureaucratic gesture under the guise of ending and preventing homelessness.
"Republicans have sat on the sidelines for the last six years as poverty and homelessness have increased in the face of their failed economic policies," Subeck said. "People with no place to sleep tonight don't have time to wait for a bureaucratic council or pilot program."
Subeck said Republicans were fooling themselves if they believed they could address homelessness without tackling its root causes, and, yet, she added, that's exactly what they were doing, offering nothing to address core issues of housing affordability or economic insecurity, or to consider the many other factors that contribute to homelessness.
"Ending and preventing homelessness means committing real resources to ensuring every Wisconsinite has a safe and affordable place to call home," she said. "Republicans have offered no significant proposals to expand the availability of affordable housing, increase wages, or ensure economic security - all key ingredients to addressing homelessness."
Subeck said it was time for big and bold action and a substantial investment in ending homelessness.
Richard Moore is the author of The New Bossism of the American Left and can be reached at www.rmmoore1.com.