Housing First: Homelessness and the need for a resource hub
BY KRIS LEONHARDT
CENTRAL WISCONSIN – While homelessness isn’t always visible driving down central Wisconsin streets, the struggle for some remains.
North Central Wisconsin Continuum of Care region reported that 571 clients experiencing homelessness were served in 2019 (the latest year for which numbers are available).
Central Wisconsin agencies are reporting increased issues, preempted for some by the COVID environment, and a rising concern for the future, with a homeless population that is projected to double by the year 2030 – the increase mostly made up of senior citizens.
Homelessness is something that Stacey Schultz, executive director of the Marshfield Area Community Foundation, continually sees firsthand in the city of Marshfield.
“Working at the community foundation, so many people that are experiencing homelessness are at the library (next door.) They hang out there and they wait for them to open so that they have a place to sit and get out of the cold,” explained Schultz. “What I will often do is say if they’re waiting outside, ‘the community center’s open.’ I offer them a cup of coffee; it’s the least we can do.
“So when I start talking to them and when they start showing up for a couple of days, then I try to get to know them a little bit. Or I say, ‘Hey, could you use one of these backpacks?’” she said, referring to St. Vincent de Paul’s Badger Packs for homelessness. “And then what happens is by just being kind, then they’ll come to me like the guy came to me and asked if he could use my copier.”
At that point, Schultz tries to gauge where the individual is in life.
“They might not be homeless, but often they are and often there’s mental health (issues) going on, as well. But you don’t want to assume anything,” she added.
“What I’ll do is I’ll sit down with somebody, and I’ll say, ‘You know, you just need a couple of things, you just walk over to St. Vincent de Paul.’ I say, ‘It’s right behind Kwik Trip. And while you’re there, if you need help with housing, then you should ask for Ted at North Central Community Action.’
“So, I’ll try to figure out what they need and Tricia (at St. Vincent de Paul) has a spreadsheet, like do you need housing, call this number; if you need this, call this number. And it’s nice; but again, with this gentleman, I was like sending him to City Hall because he needed W-2 help. And then, I’m sending them over to St. Vincent de Paul if he needed food. So, I just feel like we are sending people to his pockets. And they’re barely getting through the day.
“(They have) ‘Housing First’ in Ohio and the housing first concept is you get them a place to live. And then you get them case management, and then you worry about everything else. Because if you know you have a place to live, then you can focus more on getting a job and getting mental health services and getting just everything else that you want. So we don’t have that here.”
“Housing First” has emerged as an alternative to an approach in which people experiencing homelessness were required to participate in short-term residential/treatment programs before obtaining permanent housing. Through the former approach, permanent housing was offered only after the person experiencing homelessness could demonstrate that they were “ready for housing.”
Housing First prioritizes providing permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness, giving them a “platform” to improve their quality of life. This provides basic necessities before attending to job security, budgeting, and substance issues.
It is a concept that St. Vincent de Paul-Marshfield Outreach Director Trisha Hebert employs with the limited resources at her disposal.
“What are your immediate needs right now, so if it is housing we try to find a hotel for a few days, and I say a few days because we haven’t been able to book hotels for long because they are so full,” Hebert explained.
“That’s our first step – let’s try to get rid of the biggest barrier right in this moment and then try to come up with a plan. What is your plan of action? If we find you temporary housing for a few days, what are you going to do in that timeframe? A lot of time it is mental health, a lot of times it is employment – I am waiting on a job offer, but this is holding me back.”
Hebert said that a lot of the time the affordable housing in the community is already full, so permanent provisions are harder to address. But, she can provide a hub for resources.
“If we can’t have a hub, giving them the direct phone number so they can call; they can use our phones or whatever the case may be, so they can call and get the answers before they make that trip,” she added.
But, the shame and embarrassment will often keep those experiencing homelessness from coming forward for help. “They don’t want to be discovered or seen,” Hebert explained.
And even if they do seek assistance, it sometimes just isn’t enough, no matter the lengths that local agencies go through to help, which the North Central Community Action and St. Vincent de Paul Outreach programs experienced last December.
“This individual, we’ve worked with them; we’ve helped them. North Central Community Action helped him. There was an underlying substance-alcohol abuse situation. They’d been helped several, several times. I went in one Saturday…walked into the building. I was there maybe a half hour and walked out,” Hebert recalled.
“We got a huge snowstorm that night; it was like the worst snowstorm in December. I went back the next day in the morning…in broad daylight. I thought I saw a pair of shoes.” Being that the shoes were bright orange and the snow had been plowed, Hebert thought that it must have been road construction cones caught up in the snow. “We have road cones up so people understand our drive-through process,” she explained.
On Monday morning, Hebert got a call that an individual had been found behind the building. Going through video footage with the police department, Hebert realized that the deceased individual would have been there when she stopped in.
“We tried to help as much as we could. I don’t know what we could have done differently,” she said.
“We can’t want it more than they do.”
Emerging State Aid
On Sept. 28, Gov. Tony Evers announced an additional $500,000 for homeless case management services through the State Shelter Subsidy Grant Program and $1.2 million for Safe Shelter and Homelessness Grants, to help residents experiencing homelessness and those that serve them during the winter months.
In 2021, $6 million was put into Safe Shelter and Homelessness Grants for shelters and youth homelessness and runaway shelters.
The Evers Administration also announced that week that more than 48,000 households had received assistance from the Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance (WERA) program, surpassing $200 million in rent and utility payments statewide. The federally-funded WERA program provides up to 18 months of financial assistance for current and overdue payments of rent and utilities, including water, electricity, gas, and internet.
The WERA program was announced in February 2021 and is administered by the Wisconsin Department of Administration and funded by the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program through the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
The WERA program is open to Wisconsin residents who demonstrate a risk of experiencing housing instability, who have seen their income impacted by COVID-19, and who earn a household income at or below 80 percent of the county median income. Rental and utility assistance payments are made directly to the landlord or utility provider on behalf of the tenant. More information is available at doa.wi.gov/Pages/WERA.aspx.
CENTRAL WISCONSIN RESOURCES
One-stop hotline for assistance with food insecurity, housing, elderly care, and more. Visit https://211wisconsin.communityos.org/guided-search or call 2-1-1.
United Way of Marathon County
Serves Lincoln, Marathon, Oneida, Portage, and Vilas counties. Call 715-848-2255.
Wisconsin Department of Family and Children
Emergency assistance through a one-time payment for low-income parents for emergency housing or utility-related expenses.
The Wisconsin Association for Homeless and Runaway Service
Transition living program for youth. Visit www.wahrs.org/programs.html.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Housing Support Services
Housing assistance and veterans programs. Visit www.lsswis.org, or visit the central Wisconsin regional office at 115 N. Sixth Street, Wausau.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Housing Support Services
Provides housing assistance. Visit www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/medicaid/housing-supports.htm.
LOCAL ASSISTANCE AGENCIES
The Salvation Army Hope Center, 1600 Briggs St., Stevens Point
The Salvation Army Transitional Living Center, 113 South 2nd Ave., Wausau
Community Warming Centers: 1300 Main St., Stevens Point; 1421 Churchill St., Waupaca; 903 N. Third St., Wausau.
Interfaith Food Pantry of Portage County, 2810 Post Rd., Plover
Community Thrift Store and Food Pantry, 2124 Rice St., Stevens Point
St. Paul Lutheran Food Pantry, 1919 Wyatt Ave., Stevens Point
Portage County Mobile Food Pantry, 900 Brilowski Rd., Stevens Point
The Salvation Army Hope Center Food Pantry, 1600 Briggs St., Stevens Point
FOCUS, 2511 Eighth St. South, No. 242, Wisconsin Rapids, or call 715-422-2050
Clark County Aging Department Food Pantry, 517 Court St., Room 201, Neillsville, or call 715-743-5166
Clark County Area Food Pantry and Resource Center, 1031 E. Division St., Neillsville, or call 715-743-2885
Operation Bootstrap Crisis Assistance, 5000 Heffron St., Stevens Point
Emergency Services by Portage County Health and Human Services Department, 1224 Strongs Ave., Stevens Point
CAP Services/Family Crisis Center, https://capservices.org or call 800-472-3377
Evergreen Community Initiatives, 1948 Church St., Stevens Point, or call 715-252-7860
LOVE, Inc., South Wood County, 715-424-5883 or https://loveincswc.org/contact
St. Vincent de Paul Outreach, 149 N. Central Ave., Marshfield, or call 715-387-0395
North Central Community Action Program, 2111 Eighth St. South, Suite 102, Wisconsin Rapids, or 715-424-2581 or 149 N. Central Ave., Marshfield, or 715-387-2626