Wausau homeless encampment in 2023. Source: City of Wausau

By Shereen Siewert

Wausau homeless encampment below a bridge near the Marathon County Public Library. Source: City of Wausau

Wausau’s Department of Public Works is again asking the City Council to approve a budget amendment to build a fence in areas beneath the Scott Street Bridge, months after the council rejected a similar request.

The city approved funding in 2022 to build the fence, a move that has drawn controversy and criticism from homeless advocates in the area as the spot is one in which homeless residents place tents for shelter. In September, a proposal to add an additional $18,000 to the $40,000 already budgeted failed to gain a required 2/3 majority, even with a 5-4 passing vote, and the project stalled.

In January, the DPW issued another request for proposals and opened the single bid received on February 14 during a Board of Public Works Meeting. The single response, from Fortress Fence, is roughly $87,000, more than twice the amount initially budgeted as a capital improvement measure. The BPW tabled the issue, but department leaders now say they have a commitment from Wisconsin Public Service to pay the amount over the budgeted funds.

In February, news that the project was still on the table took some council members and advocates for the homeless population, who thought the project was rejected in September, by surprise. Some members of the public see the fence as yet another Wausau initiative to punish homeless residents.

In September, Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven said the bridge effort was never conceived to solve the homeless issue but a safety measure to keep residents from falling into the river. But a memo by Public Works Director Eric Lindman appears to directly refute that assertion, and Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian, who voted against the measure, openly asked in September just how much of Wausau’s sprawling riverfront the city plans to fence off if the project is truly about public safety.

In his March 14 memo to council members, Lindman said the city approved the fence to “prevent people from using this area for living and camping.” Lindman goes on to say that “people are and have been camping, living and hanging out in the areas under the bridge.”

In February, Marathon County Community Outreach Task Force Director Sandi Kelch said her organization understands the purpose of the fence but fears the consequences could be grave if built before permanent, compassionate alternatives are in place. She also pointed to the severe shortage of beds for people who need them, especially during harsh weather events.

Lindman will ask the Finance Committee and full Council on Tuesday, March 14, to pass a new budget amendment that shifts the funding to 2023. Doing so, and voting to accept the grant from WPS, will allow the project to move forward but requires a 2/3 vote from the body.

Larger cities such as Nashville, Spokane and Seattle have taken similar measures, spending tens of thousands of dollars to fence off areas where homeless people seek shelter. In both of those instances, advocates and residents asked whether that money could have been used to create shelters, rather than fences.

“The use of infrastructure to discourage sleeping or camping by homeless people is known as “hostile architecture,” a 2018 Seattle Times story reads. “It can be as explicit as the city of Spokane’s dumping tons of basalt boulders under Interstate-90 last fall to discourage people from camping, or Tacoma dropping boulders on a grass parking strip where people congregated a year before.”

Some of those actions have drawn lawsuits. The ACLU in 2017, for example, sued Santa Ana, Cal., after the city erected fences around a homeless encampment. More recently, in January, the ACLU took action in Pittsburgh after the city shut down an encampment without providing residents with sufficient notice of the closure, alternative housing options or storage for the items left behind. The legal implications for Wausau are so far not clear.

The WPS portion of the project fences off access to the dam, which presents a significant safety hazard. Wausau’s portion of the project, which relies on decorative fencing rather than chain link, does not appear to connect to the WPS portion but instead blocks off the areas adjacent to the shoreline.

Wausau officials will take up the matter in two consecutive meetings on Tuesday. According to city documents, WPS committed to paying the additional cost of the city’s portion of work, which documents now state are “about $14,000,” in an effort “to keep the project moving.”

Lindman did not respond by press time to a request for the grant application document, to questions about who authorized the funding application, or for a request to clarify comments about the purpose of the fencing project. Mayor Katie Rosenberg also did not respond by press time to a request for comment.

The Finance Committee meets at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday and will make a recommendation to the full council, which meets at 6:30 p.m. Both meetings will be held at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. Public comment is allowed to preregistered citizens at the start of the City Council meeting.