A homeless man seeks shelter from the cold in the rotunda of the state Capitol building on Jan. 21. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
A homeless man seeks shelter from the cold in the rotunda of the state Capitol building on Jan. 21. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Aid allocated by Senate is a fraction of that approved by Assembly

The state Senate voted Tuesday to approve $1 million in funding for Wisconsin homeless shelters, and while that money will help, homeless advocates said that action barely addresses a need that continues to grow.

The Senate’s vote failed to mirror that taken in June by the Republican-controlled Assembly, which backed a series of homeless-related bills that would have boosted funding for that population by about $3.7 million this year and next. Instead, Tuesday’s Senate action provides $500,000 in each of the next two years to homeless shelters throughout the state. 

“This doesn’t go nearly far enough,” said Kevin Burch, director of housing services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse, which operates homeless programs in 17 Wisconsin counties. “If we’re going to really address homelessness, we need to do more than just have people at shelters … We need to move them into housing.”

Despite lengthy debate and personal stories from Democrats advocating for the importance of more homeless services, Republicans weren’t convinced to add other expenditures. A Democratic amendment that mirrored the Assembly’s action was defeated 17-14. The Senate then voted 32-0 in favor of the more modest shelter funding.

The bill now goes to Gov. Evers for approval. It remains unclear whether the Senate will take up any of the other seven bills in the package the Assembly backed to aid the homeless.

Those measures would have provided such homeless-related services as more caseworkers, job training, and assistance to find housing. Such efforts are necessary to make a dent in the growing number of people without homes of their own, Burch said. 

“I don’t want to detract from funding for shelters,” he said. “But if you can put more resources on the preventive end, hopefully you can make a shift toward keeping more people in housing.”

Efforts to address homelessness in Wisconsin were based on recommendations from the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness, created in 2017 by Republican-backed legislation. However, some Republicans have questioned the cost and effectiveness of measures to address people without homes. 

Brianne Berres, director of the Sojourner House homeless shelter in Eau Claire, said she is frustrated that the Senate isn’t willing to spend more money for such a serious issue across Wisconsin and elsewhere.

“I am definitely disappointed,” Berres said. “I would hope we would be able to have more support from our legislators, knowing that this issue is a national crisis.”

While Karla Thennes would have liked to see the Senate take the same action as the Assembly, the executive director of homeless services provider Porchlight in Madison said she is grateful for the additional funding for shelters. She said she was surprised the Senate took up any homeless-related bills after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said last month the Senate would not do so. 

“I wish they had done more, but I’ll take it,” Thennes said when asked her reaction to the Senate’s vote. “If I could choose one of the eight bills I wanted them to take up, I would have picked this one.”

Help paying for shelters is critically important, Thennes said, noting private donors pay for half the cost of operating the three Porchlight shelters. 

“We run on a shoestring budget,” she said. “We are grateful for it, but you can’t count on (private) funding from year to year.”

Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said additional funding would help homeless people but won’t solve the issue. Doing so would involve making inroads on addiction issues and job training. 

“I ask that we talk about the root of the problem and not just money,” he told his Senate colleagues. 

Democrats in the Senate said Tuesday’s vote marks a lost opportunity. Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, urged her fellow Senators to support the bill, saying too many in the state are homeless.

“People are living in cars. Kids are couch surfing,” she said. “There is not a sense of urgency to (address homelessness) in a timely fashion that is compassionate.”

Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, cited the deaths of three homeless people in Wisconsin in November as evidence the Legislature must do more to address homelessness here.

“We’re not just talking about luxuries (with this funding),” she said. “We’re talking about life and death.”