While Wausau and Marathon County have struggled to address affordable housing and homelessness, a few cities and communities have largely succeeded in reducing the number of people living on the streets or in shelters.
Cities with success stories have all prioritized a ‘housing first’ policy. Under this approach, cities prioritize providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, serving as a platform from which they can improve their quality of life, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Of these, Houston has been making waves by moving 25,000 off the streets into their own homes over the course of the past decade. Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless worked with Harris County officials, the mayor’s office and local landlords to help people living in shelters and tents to move directly into one-bedroom apartments, some for a year, others for longer. They are no longer forced to live in homeless shelters or face the threat of citations from police, a prospect faced by the unsheltered in Wausau.
The CAUF Society has profiled Columbus and Salt Lake City among the four cities that have successfully addressed homelessness – in varying degrees – in addition to Vienna, in Austria and Helsinki, in Finland. The organization, whose name stands for Cold And Uncared For, works to reduce homelessness in a variety of capacities.
Several organizations working to reduce the number of people without homes and the cities that have reduced homelessness commonly say their top solution is their “housing first” philosophy. Houston, Tex., Columbus, Ohio and Salt Lake City, Utah have all adopted some form of the policy.
Austin, too, has adopted similar strategies and officials there say it is their “moral imperative” to end homelessness. The capital city of Texas has budgeted to build shelters outside of downtown after enacting new rules on resting, camping and panhandling, rules that prompted strong debate. An ordinance passed in Wausau in 2019 led to a similar conversation.
Advocates say housing can help people address other areas that may have contributed to their homelessness — such as employment, health, and substance abuse. While experts agree that providing more affordable housing units is imperative, some caution about the lens through which the problem is viewed.
“As long as the frame is that people are homeless because they have mental illness or addiction, that doesn’t address the systemic problem that we’re not building enough homes,” said Jenny Schuetz, a housing policy experts and Senior Fellow at Brookings Metro, in an interview with Bloomberg news. Schuetz is the author of Fixer-Upper, a book that examines causes of homelessness and offers practical solutions for local, state and federal governments.
Some experts with the American Psychological Association say homelessness can be the cause of both physical and mental disorders. Other studies have shown that homelessness and mental health disorders have a complicated, two-way relationship. “Several studies have shown, however, that individuals with mental illnesses often find themselves homeless primarily as the result of poverty and a lack of low-income housing,” according to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.
Salt Lake City, once a national model for reducing homelessness by 91 percent, has faltered in recent years and has not built any new permanent supportive housing since 2010, according to a Reuters report. Some city leaders there are suggesting returning to their previous ‘housing first’ approach, but so far that hasn’t happened. Though Utah’s state legislators established a commission in 2018 to explore affordable housing, they “failed to pass a $100 million bond to build new housing.”
According to Pew Research, about half of Americans say the availability of affordable housing in their local community is a major problem, up 10 percentage points from early 2018.
According to data from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, on a single night in 2020, approximately 580,000 people experienced homelessness in the country. Six in ten were staying in sheltered locations – emergency shelters or transitional housing programs – and nearly four in ten were in unsheltered locations such as on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation, the Council said.
Those numbers reflect a 2% increase from 2019, the fourth successive annual increase recorded. The number of enrolled students who cited some form of homelessness increased, too. For Wisconsin, the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given day is 4,515, according to state figures.
What is Wausau doing?
Poverty and low income do play a role in making housing out of reach for many local families. In Wausau and Marathon County, where the poverty rate is 15.8% and 6.7%, respectively, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, issues surrounding homelessness have drawn intense scrutiny in recent times. The Wausau Police Department said they have seen a steep rise in complaints from businesses and residents in Wausau’s downtown area about people experiencing homelessness.
The city’s Affordable Housing Task Force, an advisory body, recently presented a five-tier strategy to the City Council. Of these, they listed building more affordable units as their top priority by using American Rescue Plan Act funding. The task force has been urging action on building affordable rental units in Wausau for many months. A letter to the editor to Wausau Pilot & Review also urged using ARPA funds to build more affordable housing.
Tammy Stratz, Wausau’s Community Development Manager, told Wausau Pilot & Review that affordable housing and homelessness are “not just a Wausau thing,” but rather a nationwide problem. “Talking with other communities at our national conference last week, we are all in the same boat and struggling to find answers,” she said. “There is no one program that will fix everything.”
Two proposals related to affordable housing from the Community Development department are pending with the Finance Committee, whose members on June 14 said they want more information before moving forward. One of projects aims to provide “improvements and expansion of affordable housing units” with a price tag of $1.3 million, with ARPA funds accounting for $1 million and the rest to be borne by the city. The proposal includes forgivable loans for landlords if they commit to a rental subsidy f0r income-qualifying tenants. The other is a housing counseling/down payment assistance proposal that comes with an ARPA funding request for $34,000 with the remaining amount, $26,000, to be provided by the city.
Wausau recently increased low interest loan amounts for households that qualify under HUD’s income standards. The Wausau Finance Committee also approved a $500 grant for closing costs for residents participating in the city’s housing counseling program and who purchases a home in the city.
The city also offers a Homeowner Rehabilitation Loan program, another low interest, low repayment loan to assist with necessary home repairs.
According to data presented by the United Way of Marathon County at the Wausau Affordable Housing Task Force meeting in February, 850 people sought emergency shelters in Wausau and other areas in the county in 2021.
Organizations and residents in Wausau area have called for building more affordable housing to address homelessness.