Damakant Jayshi

Advocates on Tuesday had sharp criticism for a Wausau City Council member who blamed homelessness on the agencies that provide resources for unhoused members of the community. They say local officials must recognize the root causes of the problem to address it.

Speaking during the public comments phase of the City Council meeting on Tuesday, four affordable housing advocates said the problem stems largely from a demonstrable lack of affordable housing in Wausau and the county.

“The root cause of homelessness is trauma; the gateway drug is not marijuana, it’s not alcohol, it is trauma,” said Sandra Kelch, executive director of Marathon County Community Outreach Task Force. “The other root cause of homelessness is mental illness…Agencies assisting the unhoused do not cause trauma, they do not cause mental illness and they did not cause the housing crisis.”

Kelch, who is a member of Wausau Affordable Housing Regional Task Force, criticized Alder Lisa Rasmussen for her comments on homelessness at the Public Health and Safety Committee last week in which the city alder laid the blame on availability of aid and resources for the unhoused population in the city.

Rasmussen, while reacting to a police report on downtown activity, alleged that “other areas are depositing their homeless population in Marathon County and in Wausau for us to address.” She also defended an ordinance that the City Council passed in 2019 which many saw as criminalizing homelessness. Rasmussen has denied criminalizing homelessness was the intent of the ordinance.

“In 2019, the City Council passed an ordinance in reference to the parking ramps,” Kelch said. “In 2022, Lisa Rasmussen made a statement of blame for the increase of ordinance violations on the agencies who serve the unhoused based on, and I quote, ‘what she heard’,” Kelch said. “These statements are reckless, unprofessional and an insult to those who dedicated their lives to end homelessness in Wausau.”

Instead of attacking the homeless, Kelch said, the city should adopt a ‘housing first’ initiative in conjunction with trauma informed services.

The Wausau Police Department report said officers have been inundated with complaints from business and residents in downtown area. It said the problem is “more significant than ever” with some unhoused people using parking ramps and other public spaces. The report said it was time the City Council addressed it through policy.

Amanda Ladecki, also from the Community Outreach Task Force, acknowledged that “the unhoused population is growing but it is because of the lack of affordable housing and housing shortage” and said the WPD shouldn’t have to deal with it. “We have laws and ordinances that protect our pets from being left outside, and not being fed but our fellow citizens are not given the same concerns or respect,” Ladecki said. She pointed out that the city did not have a public bathroom and called on the city leaders “to try new solution to the existing problem.”  

Curt Deininger, President of the Community Outreach Task Force Board of Directors, told the City Council that the problem will only get worse once the warming center, open only in the colder months, closes for the summer. He praised efforts by Mayor Katie Rosenberg and the Wausau Policing Task Force for acknowledging the problem of homelessness and trying to prioritize it. The nearly finalized WPTF report has identified homelessness in Wausau as one of the top priorities that needs to be addressed.

Similarly, Benjamin Ericksen, a former civil service officer for Wausau, said that the police proposal of creating a community outreach professional was a positive step to address homelessness in the city.

Wausau has a severe affordable housing shortage and advocates have called for building more units for low income people.