Damakant Jayshi

Wausau resident Douglas Martin says he works Monday through Friday and has saved enough money to rent a place to live. But so far landlords will not accept him because, he said, “I am…homeless.”

As a result, he told Wausau’s Liberation and Freedom Committee during public comments on Wednesday, he has been forced to spend his nights at a warming center inside a downtown Wausau church.

Landlords usually ask for rental histories and reference checks, which the unhoused cannot provide.

“I have got citations for sleeping…not for being drunk or anything, just sleeping, to go to work the next day,” Martin said. He pleaded with city leaders to explore help for people like him, “not a kick on the back when they are sleeping.”

“Some people are obnoxious and they deserve getting arrested, but not everyone is bad,” he said Wednesday. “But they get treated the same.”

Martin said that he and others like him have been treated harshly by police and virtually everybody else they meet. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Martin said he’s been clean for a year. He works, he said, but he still needs some help.

Organizations trying to help address homelessness are pointing out the vicious cycle that people like Martin find themselves in.

Sandra Kelch, executive director of Marathon County Community Outreach Task Force, said unhoused people are subjected to “cruel and unjust punishment” which she said goes against the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment. She said the fines imposed only pile up because they cannot pay. That, she said, results in a jail stay, something she sees as both cruel and unjust. Some homeless people languish in jail for months on non-violent charges, like bail-jumping, she said, “but they are not a threat to society.”

Kelch acknowledged that some behavior does warrant arrest, but said that public urination and defecation is a public health issue that needs “humane and proactive solutions.” That, she said, does not involve arrest.

Martin said he hopes Wausau residents and police focus on treating people fairly.

“We’re not all bad,” he said. “But we get treated bad.”

Alder Rasmussen’s use of word ‘deposited’ for human beings draws scrutiny

“Please also provide your definition of ‘depositing’ as it relates to human beings, should such a definition exist.”

That is one piece of information that Wausau’s Liberation and Freedom Committee is seeking from Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen and the Public Health and Safety Committee.

Rasmussen claimed last week that “other areas are actually depositing their homeless population in Marathon County and in Wausau for us to address.” She also laid the blame on availability of aid and resources for the unhoused population in the city and also defended a controversial ordinance on homelessness that passed in 2019. While critics called the ordinance an attempt to criminalize homelessness, Rasmussen has denied that intent, an assertion she repeated last week.

Members of the LFC expressed their outrage over the remarks, especially the term “deposited” that Rasmussen used in her remarks.

The committee passed a motion to seek information from the Public Health and Safety Committee and the Wausau Police Department over homelessness in the city, especially the basis for such statements. “Requested information should include which ‘areas’ are ‘depositing their homeless population in Marathon County and in Wausau,’ the method or means through which ‘their homeless population’ is being ‘deposited in Marathon County and in Wausau, and the number of individuals from ‘their homeless population’ that are being ‘deposited’ in Marathon County and Wausau.”

On Tuesday, advocates called upon the City Council to identify the root causes of homelessness, which they said were trauma and mental illness, and called for more affordable housing in the city. They also categorized Rasmussen’s remarks as “reckless, unprofessional and an insult to those who dedicated their lives to end homelessness in Wausau.”

This chain reaction was caused by a Wausau Police Department quarterly report. Wausau police chief Benjamin Bliven, while presenting the report to Public Health and Safety Committee on April 18, said the reports officers are dealing with regarding homeless people in downtown Wausau are “more significant than ever.”

“We have been inundated in the last month and half or so with complaints from businesses, downtown establishments, citizens regarding the unhoused population,” Bliven said last week. “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.”

The LF committee also sought information regarding Bliven’s report. “The request is for the formal documentation and of the police reports of the described complaints within this 45-day period.”

The committee’s chair, Tom Kilian, sought City Attorney Anne Jacobson’s opinion on whether the committee had jurisdiction to seek such information. Jacobson responded that it could since “addressing barriers to equality” is one of the committee’s objectives and since they were discussing an agenda item.

Member Bruce Grau criticized Rasmussen’s remarks as cruel and said there could be many causes of homelessness, including financial ruin.

Alder Lou Larson said the city should do more to address the problem. The Dist. 10 alder, who is not a member of the LF Committee, said anyone making such remarks should not be sitting on the Public Health and Safety Committee ,which is one of the bodies that the WPD reports to.

“We also need to hold our elected officials and city officials accountable for misleading the public,” Larson said.