By Shereen Siewert
City officials took the next step this month in creating an ordinance that would fine homeless people who sleep in downtown parking ramp stairwells.
Members of the Public Health and Safety committee on Oct. 21 unanimously passed the proposal, which is a response to concerns over people working or visiting downtown who feel unsafe when they step over homeless people who are seeking shelter in the ramps. Police say there is no current law on the books that allows them to force homeless people to move.
Wausau Police Deputy Chief Matt Barnes told the committee that current practice is to politely ask people to move along. The proposal includes a $50 fine for people who violate the ordinance.
“At the end of the day, I can’t point to a law or ordinance that allows us to enforce that,” he said. “If the desire of the council is not to have people sleeping in the ramps, then we need a law in place that allows us to enforce that.”
Council President Lisa Rasmussen said she recognizes the city has issued with homelessness and public intoxication, and said the council is looking for ways to remove roadblocks for services to people impacted by homelessness.
Barnes called the proposal a “band aid” to a much larger problem. The city’s warming center is only open from Nov. 1 until spring.
“This is one of many issues but we feel as though in order to protect our downtown businesses, passing this ordinance and giving us this tool is an important first step.
Dist. 3 Alderman Dave Nutting, who represents the downtown area, said workers who have to traverse through the parking stairway have admitted to their employers they are scared.
“This does not bode well for our community,” Nutting said. “The trouble is Wausau is a county seat, and county seats attract these people because of services we provide for the homeless. You don’t see these issues in the townships because we have the services. The warming center or Salvation Army might not accept certain individuals because they are deemed unfit.
Nutting said the city needs an alternative, and suggested that alternative may be the county jail for those who are unable to be accepted at these other places.
The proposal is subject to full council approval, which could come in November.