Damakant Jayshi

City leaders and affordable housing advocates are seeking partners and support to ensure all Wausau residents have access to a safe place to sleep during extreme weather.

The Marathon County Housing Task Force will hold an informational session set for 5 p.m. on Oct. 5 at Community Partners Campus in Wausau, according to a statement issued last week. The session will discuss Community on Call, a program that aims to provide temporary shelter during extreme weather conditions. Community organizations, churches, nonprofits, businesses and individuals interested and committed to helping facilitate such an initiative are urged to come forward.

Lisa Rasmussen, alder from Dist. 7 and a member of the Marathon County Housing Task Force told Wausau Pilot & Review that Community on Call was created by a subgroup of the task force. The idea was brought forward by Donna Ambrose, executive director of The Neighbors’ Place, she said.

“We’re hopeful that Community on Call will connect organizations and individuals who want to help our more vulnerable neighbors,” Ambrose is quoted as saying, in the city’s statement. “We also think that this model will make helping out more manageable for our community.”

Community on Call is modeled after a program from another area where private sector groups join forces with established shelters to expand shelter capacity during extreme weather conditions.

“Groups would register for one week of the year, offering extra space, often fellowship halls or other larger spaces,” Rasmussen said. “If there are no extreme weather events that week, the group and their facility is not utilized.”

She added the extreme weather-focused initiative is not about the current shelters not being enough or not doing enough but it is about having expansion capability and an advance plan for rapid expansion should it become necessary.

The October meeting will share ideas on providing shelter during both extreme hot and cold weather.

“It’s our goal to make sure that nobody must stay outside when the weather deems it unsafe and we think with the right participation, this is a solution for that,” Ben Lee, director of community impact for United Way, told this newspaper.

Homelessness and affordable housing have been major challenges in Wausau and Marathon County. In August last year, 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.

Two Wausau alders, Gary Gisselman from Dist. 5 and Tom Kilian who represents Dist. 3 called for holding a Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss homelessness, saying the city’s efforts were inadequate.

Rasmussen, who has faced criticism for some of her public remarks and emails related to homelessness in Wausau, defended the city’s efforts.

“Wausau has devoted a ton of money and effort to solutions,” she said. “Local government alone cannot solve it, and money alone will not solve it.”

Both Eau Claire and LaCrosse have year-round warming centers for homeless residents, while communities statewide are seeing an uptick in the number of unsheltered people over the past year.

Unlike Marathon County, Lincoln County has a running list of shelters for extreme weather, and Portage County typically sends a press release in advance of weather incidents with a list of shelter as well.