A tale of two homelessness bills

Fitzgerald's inexplicable refusal to vote on GOP bills may leave Wisconsin homeless out in the cold

Homeless man & advice on sign in red sleeping bag on the street
Homeless man & advice (by quinntheislander via pixabay)

On any given night in Wisconsin, nearly 5,000 people are homeless and many more are on the brink of homelessness, staying temporarily on a friend’s couch or other short-term reprieve. In winter weather the crisis becomes acute, and it hits areas all across the state, both rural and urban. 

Of the 4,907 homeless in January 2018, 660 were family households, 332 were veterans and 527 were experiencing chronic homelessness, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The number of people served throughout a year reveals a far broader problem. In 2017, a total of 21,906 people experiencing homelessness received services and shelter according to the state’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, with 17,905 people staying in emergency shelters in 2017. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, 18,592 public school students experienced homelessness (including living in shelters) during the 2016-17 school year in Wisconsin.

Faced with this situation, legislators from both parties put forward more than a dozen bills tied to helping the homeless this session, including a package of bills authored and touted by Republicans. Yet as the Assembly and Senate adjourned earlier this month — not to return until late January — they had passed just two homelessness-related bills in 2019, one of them was more of a technical bill on insurance liability for doctors, and none of the showcased bills from their own package.

Homeless many on street getting help from passersby
Photo by Ed Yourdon [CC BY-SA 2.0
The fate of two key pieces of bipartisan legislation designed to help the homeless showcases what can go right, and what can go off the rails, in the Wisconsin legislature.

Legislative action helps homeless 17-year-olds 

First, the upbeat story of a bipartisan bill that became law—and that advocates say could offer real help for some homeless teens.

Wisconsin got some national props for a measure  that Gov. Tony Evers signed into law last week that will allow 17-year-olds to stay unaccompanied in a homeless shelter. It was a Republican bill, embraced by Democrats, backed by social advocacy groups including End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, Kids Forward, Wisconsin Catholic Conference and more.

“No kid should have to worry about where they are going to sleep at night, but the reality is that there are thousands of homeless and unaccompanied kids across our state,” said Evers in signing the bill into law on Nov. 19. “This bill gives some of those kids the ability to access safe, emergency housing when they are experiencing a crisis. With the cold winter months already here, I hope this is one of many bipartisan initiatives we can take to make sure folks experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity are able to be safe and warm this winter.”

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck

It was a moment of bipartisan compassion and action as the bill passed through both the Assembly and Senate on a voice vote and was sent to Evers’ desk. The bill was authored by Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). 

“Providing eligible individuals with an opportunity for safe shelter and other supports will reduce their risk for negative outcomes,” said Loudenbeck, celebrating the bill being signed into law. “Local advocates for unaccompanied and homeless youth in my district asked me to help them find options for older teens without stable housing who want to complete their high school education. This bill provides a narrow option that respects parents’ rights and maintains the integrity of the juvenile court and justice systems.”

‘Inexplicable’ Senate GOP obstruction

Unfortunately, the story of another bipartisan bill that would have helped homeless Wisconsinites of all ages right as winter was setting in, shows that even bills that look promising and on track to pass, can fall victim to politics. 

The second tale — the fate of AB 119, which would have provided grants to homeless shelters all across Wisconsin — did not end so well. This too was a Republican measure with bipartisan support, introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) and Sen. Darling.

Pre-Assembly news conference, Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Speaker Robin Vos, 11/12/19
Pre-Assembly news conference, Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Speaker Robin Vos, 11/12/19

Steineke called the efforts behind the bill, and the creation of the Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2017,  “the first major attention the issue had received at the state level in decades.” Legislators from both parties toured homeless shelters, warming shelters and food pantries, he noted. AB 119 would add $500,000 annually to the State Shelter Subsidy Grant program, which, he said, “is a 50% increase to the fund and its first major increase since its creation in 1994.” 

On April 23, 2019  in a public hearing on the bill Darling explained why AB-119 was important to her. 

Speaker Robin Vos, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Sen. Alberta Darling

“Emergency shelters are critical to our state’s homeless population,” she testified. “As a true safety net, these shelters provide a meal and safe space to sleep, particularly during Wisconsin’s frigid winter months. Assembly Bill 119 is critical to continuing to invest in our emergency shelters, enable them to renovate and expand, while still creating accountability and transparency in how these state dollars are spent.”

The bill moved through committees in both the Senate and Assembly with unanimous votes. The Assembly passed the bill in June on a voice vote. 

And that’s where it stopped. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress, refused to schedule the bill or give any explanation other than a remark to reporters that the price tag was high. So during the Senate’s last day in session for 2019, Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) moved to pull the bill to the floor for a vote.

We are entering into a cold season in Wisconsin. It’s brutal on people who are homeless,” said Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) on the floor. He recalled years ago when he worked in a property management company and found a frozen corpse in one of the service trucks, after a homeless person had crawled in trying to avoid the cold and died.

“Let’s look at the difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin,” said Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Somers). “Minnesota spends $47 million to help out with the problem. Wisconsin spends $3.7 spread out among 72 counties … We have waiting lists, people sleeping in cars —  we need that money.” Wirch noted the money had already been allocated in the budget, all it needed to be released was this one vote from the Senate. 

Fitzgerald responded by urging his caucus to vote no, saying, “We can deal with the issue as it comes back to the Senate.” That was it. 

Pleading from a host of Democratic senators was ignored as Republicans stoically voted no without explanation. While Democrats grumbled that Fitzgerald was avoiding spending any money on a social program while trying to stave off any GOP conservative opposition in the 5th congressional district race, Republicans said little, despite taking a beating from the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, that called Fitzgerald’s actions inexplicable.

These fellow Wisconsinites, who are struggling without a place to call home, need a hand up from their quiet suffering,” they editorialized. “Instead, the state Senate is ignoring their plight and a bipartisan commitment to reduce homelessness in an effective way. That’s shameful.”

Republicans did vote no. The effort to take up AB-119 failed on a party line vote, with Darling voting against taking up her own bill — the one she had pushed for passionately, arguing it was needed for winter.

After the lack of any action or explanation, the State Journal editorial board hit even harder a few days after the vote. “Below-freezing temperatures, with lows in the single digits, are predicted for early this week across Wisconsin.

“That means thousands of homeless people, many of them single mothers with children, will need help getting out of the frigid cold.

“The Wisconsin Senate, led by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, doesn’t seem to care.”

Still hope for a possible solution?

Last week, Evers and Democratic members of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) made separate pitches in letters to the JFC Republican co-chairs — Rep. John Nygren and Darling — to immediately release money in the budget — which totaled $3.75 million including the funds from AB-119 —  i as a way to ease the crisis as winter sets in, given the Senate’s lack of action. The JFC has had the power to release the money at any time, but had presumably been waiting for the Senate.

“As snow has fallen and temperatures have continued to drop, my concern has only grown,” wrote Evers on Nov. 14.  

The Democrats also sent a letter to Nygren and Darling, noting the request to release money to address homelessness was submitted to JFC in July but has yet to be taken up.

“As neither house of the legislature will be in session for the next two months, convening the Joint Committee on Finance is the fastest means to pass this legislation and assist Wisconsinites in need,” wrote Sens. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) and Reps. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) and Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee).  “Please convene this committee as soon as possible to quickly release these funds. As we approach the Holiday Season when families across our state join together to give thanks, we cannot forget those that do not have a place to call home.”

This week, after the letters were ignored, Democratic senators were still fuming and made the refusal of the Republicans on JFC and Fitzgerald to take up their own bill the topic of their Thanksgiving weekly radio address, given by Erpenbach. The text of that address follows:

Sen. Jon Erpenbach. Photo from state legislature website.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach. Photo from state legislature website.

“As the temperatures continues to drop here in Wisconsin, we are facing the fact that, due to political games, Republicans have pumped the brakes on many ideas and proposals that the majority of Wisconsinites support. Including proposals that would help Wisconsinites who are homeless,” he began. 

“That’s why my Democratic colleagues tried to pass bipartisan legislation to fund homeless shelters all across Wisconsin. This legislation passed unanimously in both Senate and Assembly committees and before the full State Assembly. Despite the bipartisan efforts, Senate Republicans said no and have adjourned until January 2020.

“The funding was already approved in the budget, and both Governor Tony Evers and the Democrats are calling upon Republicans on the Joint Committee on Finance to meet and release these funds, so that we can get to work to help those that need it most. 

“Homelessness is an issue that persists in communities all across our state. While we sit down with our families and loved ones to give thanks, it is important to remember that we do not forget those who do have no place to call home. I hope that my Republican colleagues will join us in remembering what season it is and what it is all about – it’s all about giving back.”