Damakant Jayshi

Complaints from downtown residents and business owners regarding unhoused people in the area have skyrocketed in recent months, an operations report Monday from Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven said.

Bliven said his department will request the City Council to authorize creating a new position, a community outreach professional, who will exclusively focus on community homeless outreach.

“We have been inundated in the last month and half or so with complaints from businesses, downtown establishments, citizens regarding the unhoused population,” Bliven told the Public Health and Safety Committee. “We are getting calls from citizens for people sleeping, urinating, defecating, having sexual intercourse in the ramps, people that are aggressively panhandling that are impacting the businesses.”

Bliven said the problem is more significant than ever.

“I can’t understate how much we are dealing with these issues,” Bliven said, adding that the department has received some recommendations from the Wausau Policing Task Force and is already moving forward on some of those items.

A community service officer could patrol the parking ramps and the downtown area, Bliven said, encouraging city leaders to think about future policy decisions to address the issue.

Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen blamed the problem on aid and resources available in Wausau that she said attract homeless people to the city.

“I have heard that even though there are well-meaning and beneficial programs out there, that there also exists situation in the community where there is so much aid and so much help, that other areas are depositing their homeless population in Marathon County and in Wausau for us to address,” Rasmussen said. “It’s not just only our homeless population, we are now inhering other communities’ homeless population, just because the outpouring of resources in our area.”

Rasmussen referred to a Wausau ordinance that she said addressed downtown loitering as one way the city has been working to tackle the issue. That ordinance, passed in 2019, was sharply criticized by residents and organizations. The proposal also drew the attention of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, whose legal director called on city officials to reject the measure. 

She said the council at that time was “within 24 hours, accused by room full of people of criminalizing homelessness, which was absolutely not our intent.”

“We have a way larger problem than just the ramps, and that we need to figure out,” she said. “That’s going to a be task for some upcoming version of this committee and the (city) council as well as the CIP (Capital Improvement Program) Committee and Finance when it comes to staffing resources.”