By Shereen Siewert

Two City Council members are asking for a special meeting to discuss the way Wausau is responding to homelessness, as public attention and anger continues to bubble in the community.

Gary Gisselman, who represents Wausau’s Dist. 5, and Tom Kilian, representing Dist. 3, will formally ask the full council on Tuesday to set a Committee of the Whole to evaluate and consider the the needs posed by the unhoused members of the community are being addressed at both the city and county level. According to an agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, advocates who provide services to homeless residents will also speak and ask leaders to create a new department of social development and action.

Tensions over the city’s growing homeless population have risen in recent months and some officials have seen sharp criticism from advocates in the wake of two outdoor deaths. In August, the body of a 74-year-old war veteran was discovered in a Rib Mountain field and in December, a woman who had an encampment beneath a downtown Wausau bridge also died.

“Someone died under a Wausau bridge,” Gisselman told Wausau Pilot & Review. “I mean, really? I’m not sure if the council will agree to it, but I think we need to have an opportunity to engage in the conversation. We have to start somewhere.”

During last month’s ferocious snowstorm and bitter cold, Marathon County health officials were forced to scramble to coordinate shelter, working with area nonprofit agencies and advocates to ensure safety. Gisselman and Kilian say there must be a better way, moving forward.

‘Housing first’ poses challenges in Wausau

Experts say that eradicating homelessness altogether relies largely on a “housing first” philosophy, which prevents at-risk people from falling into such situations at high rates. As affordable housing opportunities continue to shrink in Wausau and rents skyrocket, more people are unable to secure a safe place to live. The city has a severe affordable housing shortage and advocates have called for building more units for low income people. But while a plan for high-end housing in downtown Wausau that relies on millions in taxpayer funding drew dozens of supporters from area hospitals, clinics, nonprofits, businesses, Wausau School District administrators and the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, discussions on housing proposals for lower-income residents have seen little, if any, public advocacy from those same entities.

That dichotomy has not been lost on some residents as well as some members of the City Council.

Wausau in September made headway when they appointed a new officer to connect unhoused residents with services and resources available in the city. Tracy Rieger, former director of Community Homeless Facilities at Catholic Charities in Wausau, assumed the responsibilities of community outreach specialist on Sept. 1. Even with these efforts, Wausau’s warming center reported 72 unique clients who sought shelter there in November alone, according to city documents. The Salvation Army reported 55 clients in November. Between the two organizations, space exists for just 53 residents on any given night during the winter.

Efforts to address the need have been ongoing, with city officials in September approving $270,000 in federal funding for Catholic Charities to expand the nightly shelter offerings year-round, rather than just in the coldest months of the year. Even with that plan, gaps remain and daytime shelter is a significant issue – especially in extreme weather.

In May, Kilian applauded the work of the Wausau Police Department and private organizations that are stepping up to address these needs, but simultaneously pointed out the structural and departmental void Wausau faces when it comes to such issues given the absence of any Health and Human Services Department.

Kilian said he received significant contacts from citizens concerned about the lack of an emergency preparedness plan to address homeless residents during December’s bitter cold and blizzard conditions, prompting him to speak with Marathon County officials about putting emergency plans and shelter options in place that could be activated when predefined thresholds of risk are reached.

“And the topic of how the County and City can work together jointly and more effectively on this important issue rarely, if ever, comes up in city council meetings to date,” Kilian said.

While Marathon County has a social services department and a health department, Wausau has neither. But in 2022 when the council approved the liaison position Kilian asked that, should a more appropriate department be created in the future, that employee could be transitioned from the Wausau Police Department roster to that department. That amended motion passed.

Now, Kilian said that if a new department is created, it should serve as the new lead in future efforts to address the needs of unhoused residents.

“I am hoping that this future Committee of the Whole meeting, if approved by the majority of my colleagues tomorrow, provides a formal opportunity for discussion on the variety of issues described above, and serves as a foundation for future productive deliberations and actions to address these evident, longstanding municipal voids and deficits,” Kilian said. “As always, public input should be allowed at the Committee of the Whole meeting and should play a role in informing the dispositions and positions of the public’s elected representatives.”

Kilian and Giselman are well aware that an emergency preparedness plan won’t address homelessness long-term. Still, they seek to ensure that the city’s most vulnerable residents are protected, starting with extreme weather incidents.

“The city needs to take some action,” Gisselman said. “I don’t even know what that will be, but we need to start by listening.”

The Wausau City Council meets at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. If the council does not approve Gisselman and Kilian’s request, a COW meeting can also be called by Mayor Katie Rosenberg or City Council President Becky McElhaney.