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OPINION: A double whammy for the homeless

A homeless teenager in Milwaukee who goes by the nickname "Purple" stands on Sept. 25 amid the makeshift tent city he lives beneath Interstate 794 in the city's downtown. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the city and county of Milwaukee have been working for weeks to clear people out from under the overpass. Local officials say the site might eventually be used for a “green” infrastructure project meant to reduce pollution. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

A homeless teenager in Milwaukee who goes by the nickname “Purple” stands on Sept. 25 amid the makeshift tent city he lives beneath Interstate 794 in the city’s downtown. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the city and county of Milwaukee have been working for weeks to clear people out from under the overpass. Local officials say the site might eventually be used for a “green” infrastructure project meant to reduce pollution. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

The pandemic has only exacerbated homelessness throughout Wisconsin. Since COVID-19 hit in March, ever more people have come to live in tent encampments in Madison, Milwaukee, Wausau, Green Bay and La Crosse, according to the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness.

“That’s a hard thing to quantify,” said Joe Volk, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group. “But clearly it’s there.”

Shelters can’t accept as many people as they used to be able to because of social distancing rules. Churches can’t line the floors of their basements with mattresses anymore. And with winter approaching, advocates for the homeless fear people in need — including single mothers with children — may be forced to risk exposure to the novel coronavirus to stay warm.

The dilemma demands more attention and action. Please help if you can. Give to a local shelter or the WCAH. Tell public officials — those who want your vote this fall — to place a priority on desperate people with nowhere to go. Praising the good work done so far is important, too.

Gov. Tony Evers has steered $30 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to provide emergency rent assistance for lower-income people. That’s keeping the number of evictions fairly stable, Volk said, despite higher unemployment. President Donald Trump’s executive order halting many evictions through the end of the year has also helped, although some Wisconsin counties are being stricter about the rule than others. A possible eviction must be related to the novel virus for the moratorium to apply. Congress and the White House should compromise on another relief bill as efforts to develop a vaccine continue.

The pandemic has exposed the folly of the state Senate failing to act on a $7.5 million package of bipartisan homeless bills earlier this year. The Republican-run Assembly wisely and overwhelming approved eight bills, which included legislation providing short-term housing grants, help finding apartments and assistance for landlords to repair low-cost units. But the GOP-led Senate stubbornly ignored all but one proposal, meant to provide more shelter beds.

“In hindsight,” Volk said, “that was foolish when you look at where we are now with the economic pain being felt around the state.”

He’s right.

Yet helping tens of thousands of homeless people throughout Wisconsin requires more than money. It demands all of us to recognize and support the dire need for affordable workforce housing — including in our neighborhoods. As a special report, “Homelessness in Wisconsin: State at the crossroads,” by the Wisconsin State Journal and other newspapers showed last year, many people can’t afford a place to live even though they have jobs.

Places large and small need more affordable units for low-wage workers. Local economies and employers depend on it. In Madison, momentum to find and pay for a suitable site for a modern men’s shelter must continue. The goal is to provide more than a roof over people’s heads. It’s to steer them to employment opportunities and better lives.

Failing to ease the plight of the homeless across Wisconsin will cost taxpayers more over time than dealing with the situation now. That’s because desperate people often wind up requiring expensive social services, emergency health care, police attention or even jail if they don’t get help.

This morally distressing situation can’t be ignored — especially now, with the coronavirus complicating relief efforts and risking innocent lives.

– Wisconsin State Journal

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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