Snow covered the belongings of a homeless man near the state Capitol building in Madison Homeless Snow Pile
Snow covered the belongings of a homeless man near the state Capitol building in Madison

As winter temperatures drop, Republican leaders stalling on distributing funds approved earlier this year.

A dozen or so homeless people sought shelter from the cold in the state Capitol building on a recent Wednesday morning, finding out-of-the-way places to sit next to their belongings as politicians, staffers, and visitors  passed them by.

Moments later, two more homeless people entered. A weather-beaten man lugged a heavy backpack near a woman who appeared to be middle-aged, bundled in multiple layers and pushing a cart with her possessions. Another woman entered the building’s west ground-floor entrance, then exited almost immediately. 

“It’s cold out here,” she said on a morning when the windchill reading was 13 degrees below zero, “But I’m going back outside. It looks too full of people like me in here already.”

The next morning, more homeless people showed up at the Capitol again, in the same building where just hours later the Republican members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee would refuse Gov. Tony Evers’ order to meet to discuss disbursing $3.7 million in state funds for those without homes across Wisconsin, a state where 10.2 percent of the population was defined as poor in a 2017 study

While total state figures are hard to come by, the Department of Public Instruction earlier this year counted more than 19,000 homeless children and youth enrolled in public schools. 

Earlier this year, the Republican-led Assembly approved spending the funds, but the disbursement has since been held up after Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald refused to take up the measure. 

On Thursday, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee said the governor could not force them to meet. Committee leaders, Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills and Rep. John Nygren of Marinette, said Evers can address homelessness with other funding, despite sitting on the already approved funds. 

Evers had ordered the committee to meet earlier that week  in an effort to address what nonprofit leaders and others who work with the state’s homeless residents in cities like Milwaukee, Wausau and Superior say is a growing problem. Using that funding to help the homeless has taken on a new urgency, Evers has said, with the onset of winter.  

In downtown Milwaukee, only a handful of homeless people still spend time at a tent city homeless camp beneath Interstate 794 after city officials ordered the site cleared for a future clean water project. However, the majority of those homeless men and women haven’t found housing elsewhere, officials said, and simply move around to other parts of the city.

In Eau Claire, staff at the Sojourner House homeless shelter are turning people away on most cold nights because the 53-capacity shelter is full. Other homeless shelters in the city also report being full to capacity most nights. 

“We’re seeing more and more people out here on the streets,” said Mike Henry, leader of Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, a group of volunteers that provides Eau Claire area homeless people with winter clothing, food and water, and a friendly ear.

“There simply isn’t enough room for them at the shelters … It’s not humane to have them out here freezing on the streets.”

Homeless people spending days and nights outdoors is especially dangerous this time of year, when cold and snow make life on the streets especially difficult. Henry noted cases last winter of homeless residents developing frostbite, some of them severe.

“People are really suffering out in the elements,” said Henry. “There simply isn’t enough room for them at the shelters … It’s not humane to have them out here freezing on the streets.”

As state funding to assist homeless people remains tied up in the Senate, nonprofits and other organizations that assist that population are doing what they can. In Eau Claire, a nighttime warming center where people who can’t find shelter elsewhere  started up last week. 

Leaders of Christ Church Cathedral in Eau Claire also recently voted to allow the basement of a former Mennonite church building in the city’s downtown to accommodate Sojourner’s overflow population on nights when the projected low temperature is 15 degrees or colder. The facility is named Eau Claire Overnight Warming Center.   

Eau Claire resident Ken Adler, who helped establish the warming center, said a handful of people have spent nights there so far. Staffing the center has proven challenging at times, he said, but donations totaling $15,000 so far may make hiring staff possible, reducing the number of overnight volunteers needed. 

“We’re doing what we can to try to meet a need,” Adler said, “and so far people are stepping up.

Back at the Capitol, a 44-year-old homeless man who only gave his name as Larry said he was unaware of the debate about the held-up state funding that could assist him and his friends. He said he rarely keeps up on the news — he’s too busy searching for his next meal and a warm place to stay.