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Petryk column: A hand for the homeless

These past several sessions, the legislature has been working to address an issue that sometimes goes unseen. Homelessness affects families throughout the state, and not just in urban areas. According to the Wisconsin statewide homeless information system, in 2017, 21,906 people asked for help with their homelessness from a shelter or a local agency. Nearly 18,000 people stayed in an emergency shelter with 56 percent of those stays outside of Milwaukee, Dane and Racine counties. Unfortunately, these statistics may not include those that are hidden from the system, living out of a car, or on the verge of eviction.

Starting in 2017, the legislature passed a number of laws to bring attention to the issue of homelessness. In addition to maximizing existing resources, the Interagency Council on Homelessness was created. The council was comprised of secretaries from various cabinet agencies such as the Department of Corrections, Health and Human Services and Workforce Development. One year after the creation of the Council, they released a report and identified a number of legislative bills the state could do to continue its progress.

The "A Hand for the Homeless" package was introduced recently to turn these ideas into reality. As a co-author of all of these bills, the package includes numerous changes to streamline our existing programs while adding $3.75 million in new resources to address homelessness in Wisconsin, almost doubling what the state currently invests. Here is an outline of some of the bills:

• Adds $500,000 a year to the Homeless Prevention Program to help avoid evictions and creates a new short-term assistance program to help find stable housing;

• Adds $900,000 a year to the Housing Assistance Program;

• Adds $500,000 annually to help families gain employment and increase their income;

• Provides $300,000 to work with landlords to find permanent housing and mediate any disputes that may arise;

• Creates an innovative loan program to renovate existing housing units for use as affordable housing;

• Requires the Department of Workforce Development to identify programs aimed at helping homeless youth and adults, and mandates local workforce boards collaborate with their local homeless response systems.

It is my hope that these bills will become law very soon. I understand that this will, and should not be, the end of the conversation we are having on this issue as a state. I look forward to having the entire legislature support this package so we can get them to the Governor's desk for his signature.