Damakant Jayshi

Severely criticized for her remarks about the unhoused population in Wausau, a city alder on Monday said the community needs to discuss some kind of permanent day shelters, in addition to extending nighttime shelters beyond the winter months.

Lisa Rasmussen, speaking at the Public Health and Safety Committee on Monday, said the city and the community have evolved enough to recognize that unhoused people need to sleep in some kind of shelters, and not under a bridge. Rasmussen was roundly criticized for her recent remarks in which she said that unsheltered people were being “deposited” in Wausau and Marathon County because of the aid and resources available in the area.

The Dist. 7 alder said she would explore the possibility of year-round day and night shelters for unhoused people, both with organizations and individuals who are working to address homelessness in Marathon County. She also noted a problem repeatedly pointed out by homeless advocates, the absence of public toilets in the city. She said with the mall in the downtown area gone, people without shelter “who were perhaps using the mall during the day” dispersed around the city.

“Obviously, you need to go somewhere,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen also said the city should find a way to balance the needs of unhoused residents with concerned businesses in the city, specifically downtown organizations impacted by an uptick in police activity related to homelessness.

However, both she and Alder Doug Diny rejected Wausau Police Chief Benjamin Bliven’s suggestion of imposing restrictions on some parks, similar to the ban on alcohol in the 400 Block of Wausau downtown. Bliven, who made a presentation to the PHS Committee, said some parks are impacted by the way unhoused residents use them, which creates a scenario difficult for other residents to use the parks. Alcohol consumption is among the top concerns in the park settings.

Diny said he opposed restrictions because it would take opportunities away from law-abiding citizens. He also asked where the individuals, who are asked to leave parks or ramps by police, ended up going. Rasmussen said the PHS Committee had no jurisdiction over the parks and any decision about them should be made by the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee, Marathon County’s Park Commission, or both. 

During his presentation, Bliven showed a montage of police interactions with the unhoused people in an edited video. In it, the subjects were shown urinating in public, refusing to leave parking ramps and staying in parks beyond the allowed time, among other municipal violations.

While homeless residents as well as the agencies supporting them acknowledge seeing some aggressive behavior or even violations of law and city ordinances, they also point out that those are the actions of a few, but not all, people who are unsheltered. Some residents say they work and have money to rent a place to stay but no landlords wants to rent their property to them because they are homeless.

Bliven also said he hopes the City Council will approve his request to create a new position of community outreach specialist, a non-sworn position, that would deal with unsheltered individuals. Sworn officers typically have arrest powers and carry a weapon. Non-sworn positions neither carry a gun, nor have arrest powers. The police chief rejected the accusation that the police were criminalizing homelessness.

The city’s Human Resources Committee has already approved a proposal to create the position of community outreach specialist. It will be considered by the Finance Committee and subsequently by the City Council.

Earlier, Rasmussen was reelected chair of the committee, by a vote of 3-2, while Diny was elected vice chair of the committee, unopposed.