Local agencies urge legislators to pass bills to help homelessness problem

Representatives of five agencies that work to limit homelessness in all forms throughout Kenosha County met with county and state legislators Monday at The Sharing Center in Trevor to discuss the issue and urge passage of legislation that will help the agencies in their work.

Attending were state Sen. Van Wanggaard and state Rep. Samantha Kerkman, whose districts include most of Western Kenosha County. Also attending were county Supervisors Erin Decker and John Poole.

Sharon Pomaville, executive director of the Sharing Center, opened the meeting with some statistics about the number of people homeless and unstably housed in Kenosha County as a whole and in Western Kenosha County specifically, including that in 2018-19 there were 115 homeless children in Western Kenosha County schools.

That led to the state legislators discussing the difficulty around the definition of homelessness.

As an example Kerkman said under some definitions she was homeless after her divorce.

“Under the definition, I was probably homeless,” Kerkman said. “For 15 months I was living with my parents.”

But representatives from the agencies pointed out that such a situation, undertaken by a person who had options and resources, is not the same as someone who is moving around sleeping on a couch at a friend’s then at a relative’s or other places that are temporary and/or unwanted, even if it is not the classic on a park bench.

“Most of our people who are homeless, have an income of about $5,000 a year,” Pomaville said to Kerkman. “You had resources. Most of our families who are unstably housed don’t have resources.”

Wanggaard asked the groups for some help with definitions of homelessness and where they apply so that he could help educate other legislators.

“Homelessness, what’s the definition?” Wanggaard said. “That’s a problem.”

Pomaville said she feels the most effective programs are those that help people on the edge keep from falling into homelessness. Often, she said, medical problems or other hardships mean people can be less than $200 from being able to make rent or head off an eviction. Programs that can help agencies fill that gap can have a big impact.

“The goal for me (at The Sharing Center) is to make sure people don’t become homeless, because that’s the better option,” Pomaville said.

The agencies represented — The Sharing Center, The Shalom Center, United Way of Kenosha of Kenosha County, Kenosha Human Development Service, CUSH Affordable Housing Task Force — asked the state legislators to support a number of pending bills they say would help the situation.

“The legislature took the initiative to work on this issue,” Kerkman said of the bills.

Wanggaard said many of the bills are working through the Senate, where the process is more deliberative than the Assembly. But he assured the agency representatives that all the bills are getting consideration.

After the two-hour plus meeting, Pomaville said she felt it was constructive.

“Homelessness and affordable housing is a complex issue,” Pomaville said. “There is so much that we as Kenosha County service providers and the state networks do every single day, each with an integral part, to help alleviate the problem. I was glad that some of our community members were able to get a deep view of what it takes, what’s working, and what’s still sorely needed. Movement on the bills still sitting in Madison would be extremely helpful.”

This graphic from a 2018 report from the United Way of Wisconsin shows the percentages of households in Kenosha County municipalities that qualify under poverty and/or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed guidelines. /United Way of Wisconsin graphic

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