Part II: The politics of homeless services

This is Part II in a two part series exploring the city and county politics around homelessness. Read Part I here.

The politics associated with homeless services, their location and funding are not new to Madison. Most recently, concerns over shelter locations have been a topic for debate between city and county officials and neighborhood leaders.

Richard Freihoefer, a former representative for the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association, decried last year’s shelter as a center of crime and intoxication, and said that “the shelter will never reopen in this neighborhood again.”

Freihoefer and his fellow neighbors had cause to be concerned, Resnick said.

“Very often, homeless shelters have in the past had other related issues surrounding them, whether you’re talking about what they do to property values, or if there are members in the shelter that have criminal issues that cause neighborhood leaders to have concerns,” he said.

Resnick serves as an alder for the downtown area comprising Madison’s leading homeless services provider, Porchlight, Inc. Despite hearing complaints about other homeless services across the city, he stressed that he has yet to encounter an issue of crime or other related concern with Porchlight’s shelter.

“There is a stigma around homeless shelters, said Resnick. “But the one in my district -- I’ve had literally no issues with.” Resnick said.

Madison and Dane County officials have also clashed on location issues that came to a head earlier in the fall when Soglin publicly denounced Parisi for not consulting with the city when choosing a location for the proposed permanent homeless shelter.

Funding also proves to be a pervasive concern when it comes to allocating budget money toward homeless services. Resnick said he receives an average of 150 emails about the issue between August and November, while the City Council hammers out budget details each year. The emails often request funds be allocated to certain programs and not others.

“Every dollar we put toward homeless services, that’s one more dollar that doesn’t go toward lights on campus, or a building inspection, or a policeman on State Street,” Resnick said. “And everyone has something to say about it.”

Housing regulations can add to the politics of addressing the area’s homeless issue. According to federal law, the county is prohibited from providing funding for the creation of low-income housing within city limits due to the government entities’ separate housing authorities. This regulation comes into play as the city considers the construction of SROs, or single residency occupations, which would comprise efficiency-like apartments with a monthly rent as low as $150.

According to Soglin, the city is continuing to look into the possibility of SROs but is unable to fund the project on its own, and the county is prohibited from stepping in to help according to federal laws stipulating the separation of city and county housing authorities.

Resnick said the issue of funding homeless services will continue to be a bone of contention within city and county conversations for some time to come.

“Regardless of how you view the issue, there’s always going to be an argument about how much money the city or the county should put toward [the] 700 [homeless] individuals, of the quarter-million in the city, or the half-million people who live in the county,” Resnick said. “Do we give extra efforts for a few hundred individuals, or spread that effort across the area?”

Despite the ongoing politics associated with area homeless services, both city and county officials agree the issue receives an amount of attention not seen across other areas in Wisconsin.

“We can say pretty confidently that we likely spend more on a per capita basis than any other county in Wisconsin,” Kostelic said.

“If you were to take the homeless and county services provided in Madison and Dane County, I would challenge you to find any other city or county that provides better services with a population as small as ours,” Resnick said.