A group of bipartisan lawmakers is tackling the issue of homelessness in Wisconsin with a package of eight bills supporting services for homeless individuals and families.
One of the bills, AB123, authored by Rep. Pat Snyder (R-Schofield), would increase funding for the state's transitional housing program by $900,000 annually, a 300-percent increase. That bill received a public hearing this week in the Committee on Housing and Real Estate.
"Assembly Bill 123 is a great step in the right direction," Snyder said. "It increases funding for housing and related services for homeless individuals and families, under the housing grant program."
Snyder said the program was made more flexible in the last session, and so the new dollars can be used on more effective methods of combatting homelessness, which he said is critical because research shows that long-term housing solutions are more effective at combatting homelessness than emergency and short-term shelter placements.
Snyder also spoke in support of other components of the homelessness package, which increase funding for homelessness prevention, shelters, case management, and other direct services. The package also aims to increase affordable housing and services for homeless youth.
"AB 123 is critical to combatting homelessness, but it is not a silver bullet," Snyder said. "We must combine this funding for the housing grant program with other policies and resources, such as the other legislation in this bill package."
The bill came from the Interagency Council on Homelessness' Statewide Action Plan called A Hand and A Home. The legislation will still need to be voted on by committee members before going to Senate committees.
Another bill in the package would provide more grant funding for case management services.
"Case management is a proven strategy in battling homelessness," said Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona), one of the bill's sponsors. "Research has shown that it can lead to better housing outcomes, improve mental health and have a positive impact on one's quality of life."
The bill is also a policy recommendation from the Interagency Council on Homelessness, a bipartisan council created last legislative session. Specifically, the bill would increase funding for case management services at shelter facilities from $500,000 per biennium to $1 million per biennium. It would also eliminate the limit on how many grants may be awarded annually, allowing more organizations to receive funding.
"I want to reiterate my thanks to the men and women who served on the Interagency Council on Homelessness and to former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch who led this endeavor last session," James said. "In collaboration with the legislation authored by my colleagues, I believe we can make a difference in the fight to end homelessness in Wisconsin."
Under the bill, according to a Legislative Reference Bureau analysis, the Department of Children and Families would allocate $1 million of funding in each fiscal year under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program for the Department of Administration to make grants to shelter facilities for case management services for homeless families.
The bill also increases the annual limit on grants to a shelter facility from $50,000 to $75,000, the LRB states, and eliminates a restriction under current law that limits DCF to making no more than 10 grants in total each year.
What's more, the LRB stated, the bill allows shelters to use the grants for professional development of case managers, in addition to the uses allowed under current law. The bill provides that professional development includes travel expenses necessary for case managers to participate in training, though no more than 10 percent of a grant can be used for professional development purposes.
Another bill in the package, authored by Assembly majority leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), would add $500,000 annually to the State Shelter Subsidy Grant program. Steineke said that's a 50-percent increase to the fund and its first major increase since its creation in 1994.
A significant piece of the bill is the addition of performance metrics to incentivize shelters to responsibly transition individuals into permanent housing, Steineke said.
Specifically, the bill provides an additional $500,000 in each fiscal year of the 2019-21 fiscal biennium for grants to supplement the operating budgets of homeless shelters. The bill also includes additional criteria the Department of Administration must consider in awarding that additional grant money and amends administrative rules of DOA concerning the grants so that DOA's rules are consistent with certain statutory requirements, according to the LRB.
"The council has put in an incredible amount of time and effort to create the comprehensive, state-wide plan - now we in the Legislature are following through to make that plan a reality," Steineke said. "I look forward to seeing these bills receive bipartisan support, so we as a state can ensure everyone in Wisconsin has a place to call home."
Steineke said the issue of homelessness has been at the forefront of his mind for years.
"It is an honor to stand beside the passionate and knowledgeable stakeholders from around the state who are putting the work in to combat homelessness in Wisconsin," he said.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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