By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Due to the size and layout of Milwaukee, it is possible to rarely see homeless individuals sleeping on city streets overnight. Although the issue exists, often, it is a problem hidden in plain sight. Whether under bridges or low hanging trees, the homeless are shielded from passing cars and pedestrians view. Yet, we have tent cities that have become the last resort for Milwaukee’s homeless.
However, it was at and around the state capitol, that I first saw the daily manifestation of scores of our residents struggling with housing. Initially, it was the roughly 80 or so people that used to take refuge in the basement of the capitol. There, individuals and families would seek relief from extreme heat or cold.
But eventually the Walker administration changed the policy to remove them from the area. Over time, I became familiar with the elderly woman who slept on a bench. Like clock-work and by dusk, where East Washington Avenue meets the square, she would lay down. Everything she owned sat in a cart beside her makeshift bed. She would cover her head and tune the world out. In reality, homelessness had already made her invisible.
In 15 years, not much has changed in Madison. The old woman has been replaced with a young female who now sits in the MLK entrance, with many of her possessions, each morning. The folks, that once could get a temporary reprieve in the basement, are now scattered throughout the city. Select side streets hold black garbage bags containing the remnants of displaced lives. And it is here that many homeless residents settle in for the night. Heartbreakingly this year, with only a piece of cardboard between the cement and their bodies, homeless men slept under falling snow.
If you are like me, you wonder who these people are. Maybe they are youth who age out of foster care, veterans struggling with PTSD, or low-income families whose pay checks always seem to fall short of the going rate for rent.
In desperation, many of these vulnerable residents place themselves in situations that are doomed at the onset. Renting homes, they can’t afford or becoming victimized by landlords that prey on their fragile situations. It is far too easy to be a missed payment from eviction or loss of shelter. But a new proposal may help change some of this.
The concept of “Housing Navigators” would be funded in new legislation to assist the homeless to accurately identify resources, locate compatible housing and help individuals complete the applications process. If the measure passes, we get the chance to be proactive by minimizing the stress on municipal, non-profit and community resources. We have the ability to improve the safety of our residents and address the cyclical nature of poverty by investing on the front end. We have seen a number of local investments to address the shortage of affordable housing. Everything from “tiny houses” to renovated city owned units are being considered and adapted. Housing navigators will help match homeless individuals to these innovations and options. Whether Madison, Milwaukee, or anywhere else in the state, our neighbors need help. We can start by encouraging the legislature to support Senate Bill 120 and Assembly Bill 121.