Homelessness is getting worse in Wisconsin. What are communities doing to address it? - TAI News
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The number of Wisconsinites who are experiencing homelessness has increased over the last two years, a new report from the nonprofit advocacy group Wisconsin Policy Forum shows. Meanwhile, communities in the state are teaming up with local governments and making use of federal funding in efforts to find solutions to the problem.

For nearly a decade, homelessness had been decreasing across the state. While there were at least 6,055 people in the state without housing in 2014, that number dropped to 4,237 in 2021.

But the latest data shows it’s on the rise again. In 2023, there were 4,861 homeless Wisconsinites, nearly a 2% increase from 2022. According to the report, this is likely a result of economic hardships caused by the pandemic and, more recently, rising housing costs.

The data comes from an annual point-in-time count conducted every January, a tally of anyone who is unsheltered or staying in emergency shelters. According to the report, the process underestimates the homeless population since it doesn’t account for anyone staying with a friend or participating in a permanent housing program.

In Dane County, the number of people experiencing homelessness actually decreased in 2023 — but from the highest rates the county had seen since 2014. When the data from this year’s count is published, it will show another increase, according to Torrie Kopp Mueller, the continuum of care coordinator for Madison and Dane County.

But the brief improvement is a testament to the impact of federal funding the community got at the start of the pandemic, Kopp Mueller said.

“I think what COVID showed is that if we have money to do the work, we can do it. You know, we were sheltering people in noncongregate settings. They were doing really well; our public health department talked about the improved health outcomes of people during that time,” she said. “And it feels weird to say we need the money. But that’s it. I mean, we do this work every day, we know what needs to happen. It’s housing and services for those who need them, and we just need the dollars to do it.”

That funding helped keep more people in housing, Kopp Mueller said. Now that the money is running out, though, more people are losing their housing or struggling with homelessness because the cost of housing is so high.

There has been a mad dash to develop more housing in Madison and around Dane County, in part to address the increase in homelessness, but also to accommodate the community’s projected population growth.

An alarming trend has been the increase in older adults who have been using the shelters, Kopp Mueller said, “people who haven’t experienced homelessness before but are being priced out of their housing and don’t have other places to go.” About 300 people currently use Madison’s men’s shelter nightly, nearly double what is typical.

While providing housing is one solution, the city and county have taken other measures, including establishing a sanctioned encampment with tiny homes on Dairy Drive, which serves as an alternative to a shelter and provides nearly round-the-clock services to those staying there. The city will also soon break ground on a new men’s shelter that will replace some of the temporary shelters currently being used.

In La Crosse County, the community has been dealing with an increase in the amount of unsheltered homelessness, or people who may be sleeping outdoors or in their car, said Brian Sampson, the city of La Crosse’s homeless services coordinator.

“Homelessness has been an issue in La Crosse for a while,” he said. “But I think when we’re talking about the rise of unsheltered homelessness, that then has given a rise to homelessness being more seen and more visible in our community, which then I think the rest of the community has increased their worries as well.”

While there has been a lot of ongoing work to address homelessness in the community, the city and the county have now teamed up to try to effectively end homelessness by 2029.

Their five-year plan, known as Pathways Home, will add more services and housing while also improving prevention efforts in hopes of stopping homelessness from happening in the first place. The group meets weekly to discuss ways to reach its goal of “functional zero” homelessness, that is, according to the plan, “any instances of homelessness are rare and brief, and the availability of services and resources matches or exceeds demand within our community.”

While the federal funding the community received at the start of the pandemic was helpful in getting plans off the ground, to keep a long-term plan going will take a mix of federal, state and local dollars, Sampson said.

“I think that’s how we really are approaching it, as it’s like a puzzle. It’s not just going to be one funding stream that’s going to solve it all,” Sampson said. He said he hopes the issue of homelessness can be embraced as a top priority for communities going forward.

“It’s not just isolated to a specific population. Sometimes we’ll hear we should stop focusing on the 50 to 100 people in our city and focus on the other 51,000 or 52,000 people,” Sampson said. “But it’s really a community-wide issue, because these are our neighbors. These are our systems that have failed people that are put in these tough situations.”

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