By Shereen Siewert
Despite public opposition from members of the public, a representative from Catholic Charities, a member of the Marathon County Homeless and Housing Leadership Commission the Wausau City Council passed an ordinance to prohibit loitering in downtown Wausau ramps by a vote of 6-3.
Council President Lisa Rasmussen, along with council members Linda Lawrence, Dennis Smith, Pat Peckham, Mike Martens and Tom Neal voted to approve the ordinance, while Mary Thao, Gary Gisselman and Becky McElhaney were opposed.
The proposal drew the attention of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, whose legal director called on city officials to reject the proposal. Legal Director Eric Tars suggests that the proposal may indeed spur litigation, which would be an additional expense to the city.
Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven said the ordinance is meant to tackle a “narrow issue of behavior” in the downtown ramps such as drinking, public urination, drug use or other unsavory behavior.
Much of that behavior is already prohibited by law.
Bliven said that plans are in place for a task force to begin meeting in December to discuss potential solutions to the homeless problem in Wausau, and Council President Rasmussen said the council had previously identified homelessness as a top priority among the group.
But Mary Thao, who represents Dist. 10, said in the 18 months she has served on the council, homelessness has been mentioned exactly once — that is, until the ordinance was proposed.
Dennis Smith, who represents Dist. 11, said he feels no pity for homeless people who have made made the wrong choices in life. Smith suggested the city could use the empty Sears building as a shelter, which could provide a warm place to sleep but would require volunteers from the community to be successful.
Seven people spoke against the ordinance during public comment at the start of the Nov. 12 meeting, while two people spoke in favor, including Mark Craig, who manages several downtown properties. Craig said his concern is the safety of the downtown businesses and employees.
Jennifer Shidell, whose family owned a Wausau laundromat that was burned to the ground, allegedly by a homeless man, said she and her family called police more than a thousand times over a 10-year span.
“I can tell you right now, this isn’t going to work,” she said. “These people are going to go to the parking ramps…the cops are going to come, the cops are going to kick them out, they’re going to leave, and they’re going to come right back. It’s a vicious cycle. I know, because my family has been dealing with this for 10 years.”
“Similar ordinances in other municipalities nationwide have prompted lawsuits,” Tars wrote. “Based on our observations, 57% of lawsuits brought against municipalities for anti-sleeping or anti-camping ordinances between 2014 and 2017 resulted in decisions favorable to the homeless plaintiffs.”
Tars, who learned of the ordinance through a Nov. 1 Wausau Pilot and Review story that raised questions over the legality of the ordinance, also pointed to an official Department of Justice statement that says that criminalizing public sleeping in cities with insufficient housing and support for homeless individuals “does not improve public safety outcomes or reduce the factors that contribute to homelessness… Issuing citations for public sleeping forces individuals into the criminal justice system and creates additional obstacles to overcoming homelessness…Finally, pursuing charges against individuals for sleeping in public imposes further burdens on scarce public defender, judicial, and carceral resources. Thus, criminalizing homelessness is both unconstitutional and misguided public policy, leading to worse outcomes for people who are homeless and for their communities.”
But Bliven said the ordinance, which includes a $50 fine for violators found sleeping in ramps, is not meant to criminalize homelessness because the city of Wausau does not jail people who do not pay fines.
“Will we issue fines?” Bliven said. “Probably. We probably will. But our intent is to make contact with these people, ask them to move along, and connect them to services, which we already do.”
According to Tars, proven solutions to homelessness do exist, but the best, most cost-effective, and permanent way to achieve that is to ensure that all who are unsheltered are able to access adequate, alternative housing, an issue the proposal fails to address The lack of plan or requirement to house or adequately shelter the displaced persons means they are merely dispersed to different public spaces.
“Thus, we are concerned that the Proposed Ordinance merely provides procedures and cover for pursuing ineffective and expensive punishment strategies, rather than constructive solutions that can actually end homelessness in the city,” Tars wrote.