The homelessness crisis in Wisconsin prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was dire. The overall number of homeless people in and out of shelters in Wisconsin from the Point-in-Time count from January 2020 was 4,515. The homelessness situation in our state has been exacerbated by the pandemic, the accompanying economic downturn, the lack of available affordable housing, and decades-long racial disparities in our homelessness systems and housing markets. If we are to end homelessness as we know it in Wisconsin, we need a massive “All Hands on Deck” effort to address the issues that are now inextricable from our homelessness crisis.

The prevailing concern we are seeing throughout Wisconsin, in urban, suburban, and rural areas during this pandemic, is an increase in unsheltered homelessness — homelessness where people are sleeping outside or in places not meant for human habitation (examples being automobiles, campers, tents, and storage lockers).

There are several reasons for this. One is the effect that guidelines for social distancing by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) have had on emergency shelters. Almost every shelter in Wisconsin is in a building not originally designed to shelter people. As such, conditions for sleeping typically have been very close. To adhere to the CDC guidelines, most emergency shelters had to dramatically reduce their capacities, stop taking new clients, or close entirely in response to the pandemic. Additionally, many people who were doubled-up in housing needed to leave where they were staying and many homeless people declined to seek emergency shelter out of fear of contracting coronavirus.

Homelessness and housing instability in this pandemic has overwhelmed homelessness systems throughout the state. Were it not for the absolutely heroic efforts by agencies and communities around the state to implement creative responses to this crisis, untold numbers of homeless people would have become ill or have succumbed to the pandemic. At significant expense, many agencies and communities stood up non-congregate sheltering in alternate locations such as hotels and motels. Although federal funding for these solutions was provided to communities and agencies, the funds for these models are running out as we enter late fall and winter.

State government has also responded strongly to the needs of people who are experiencing financial instability. On March 26, Governor Evers announced a 60-day moratorium on rental evictions and housing foreclosures — which provided temporary relief for Wisconsinites affected by the economic downturn. As that moratorium ended, the Governor announced a new program, the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program administered through the Department of Administration and local CAP agencies, that provided $25 million in CARES ACT funds for up to $3,000 per household to help people avoid evictions. Also, Dane County, Milwaukee, and Racine stood up local assistance programs. To date, tens of millions in relief funds have been distributed to help over 10,000 households keep their housing.

Those funds are nearing the end of their availability. Currently, there is a newer federal moratorium on rental evictions in effect until the end of December. As that is ending, federal funds through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Emergency Solutions Grant program are coming online to assist people who are homeless or experiencing housing instability. The first round of funding, equaling about $13 million, has been allocated throughout the state with a second round of about $20 million set to be allocated within the next few months. It is clear that as eviction filings have increased in Wisconsin the need for more investment in homelessness prevention will be needed as there are no currently announced plans for further moratoria as we enter 2021.

And while this investment is welcome, there are many unmet needs for programming and funding to fight homelessness. To provide case management, homelessness diversion, housing navigation, and support for landlords to bring more affordable units online among other needs, the State Legislature needs to finish their job in passing the bills approved by the State Assembly that are sitting with the State Senate.

Last, but by no means least, we face an urgent need to address the issue of racial disparities in homelessness systems and housing markets. Decades of redlining, housing, and job discrimination, and other factors have led to the fact that while Wisconsin’s population is 83 percent white, Black, Indigenous and People of Color make up a majority of those served by the homelessness system. If we are to end homelessness as we know it in Wisconsin, we will need to push for solutions that advance racial equity and increase housing opportunities for BIPOC Wisconsinites. The facts are indisputable, we can easily connect the dots between inequities and homelessness, and we do not need to further study the situation. We will be working to create policies and strategies to end these disparities in the coming months.

As Wisconsin moves into the fall and winter months, agencies, communities, and all levels of government must increase their efforts to provide safe sheltering for the homeless and increase permanent housing with needed supports to move homeless people into stable housing situations. If we fail to do this, we risk seeing a dramatic increase in vulnerable people trying to survive outside with many dying as unsheltered people have died in Wisconsin during previous years. During this pandemic and beyond, the most vulnerable in our state need more funding, hard work by people who are serving the homeless, and compassion by all Wisconsinites towards our homeless neighbors.

Michael Basford is the Director for the State of Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness. mike.basford@wisconsin.gov

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