Taylor County, a rural area west of Wausau with a population of around 20,000, had zero homeless shelters until last year—but one is proving to be not that much better. The 17-bed Taylor House, which opened last spring in Medford, is often full.
The number of people who experience homelessness in rural areas is often un- or under-reported. In 2019, more than 20,000 people in Wisconsin got help from homeless services, according to the latest state report. Most were clustered around cities.
That’s because pinning down the actual level of need in rural areas is hard—homelessness looks a lot different there.
“In urban areas, you tend to have people in shelters. You notice homelessness on the street more,” Brad Paul, executive director of Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, a network of groups that fights poverty, told WPR.
“In rural areas, by comparison, you don’t have congregate shelters very often. You don’t have people sleeping on the streets. You have people living ‘doubled up’ with neighbors, with family, living in campgrounds, living in abandoned barns, so it tends to escape the public eye.”
So, what’s the solution?
Governor Evers included a $70 million investment in shelters and affordable housing services like the Taylor House in his past two budgets, but both were rejected by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
That leaves solving the problem up to local communities, and all of us. One way some have been tackling the issue is through “Housing First” programs, which prioritize getting people into safe, permanent housing before finding them a job and/or getting them in touch with a mental health professional.
You can help by donating your time or money to places like the Taylor House, or any homeless shelter, halfway house, transitional facility, or day shelter in your community.
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