Target 2 Investigates: Lawmakers take aim at homelessness

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Lawmakers in Madison are saying "We hear you" when it comes to addressing a hidden homelessness problem in Wisconsin.

"It just takes you back a bit," says Representative Jim Steineke, a republican from Kaukauna. "You realize how neglected this issue has been over the course of years."

But not anymore.

Wisconsin lawmakers say they are shifting attention to the state's growing homeless problem.

Many of you have called for action after our series of stories on homelessness found hundreds of moms, dads and their kids have no where to sleep at night.

Most, though, are working or in school during the day.

A report from the Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars program, an initiative of the Chancellor's Office and the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs, found 2,799 families and 2,886 more individuals were homeless across the state last year.

READ: Target 2 Investigates - The changing face of homelessness

Target 2 Investigates took your questions and concerns to lawmakers.

Representative Jim Steineke and fellow lawmakers started working on four bills in April.

Two have since been written into the budget, allocating about $1.7 million for programs.

The other two are a signature away from becoming law.

"The first few years I was in office, I didn't really pay attention a lot to... wasn't something that was high on my priority list," says Steineke.

But when he physically saw homeless people struggling, in public places on the streets of Madison, it hit him.

The more he looked, the more he discovered the hidden secret of homelessness.

"We were up here in Green Bay a few months ago, and I was talking to a homeless gentleman," says Steineke. "It was just mind boggling to me that he doesn't have a place to go at night to sleep. He doesn't have a place to shower. He's moving around quite a bit and yet he's able to hold on to a job."

One-million dollars over the next two years will go to intensive case management services for homeless families through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF funds.

Another $75,000 will go to one municipality, yet to be determined, to start a pilot program connecting homeless people with jobs and workforce training.

But in our Target 2 reports, we found most homeless families are already working, just not making enough to make ends meet.

READ: Target 2 Investigates - A lifeline for local homeless families
READ: Target 2 Investigates - How working families become homeless

Steineke calls these bills just the beginning.

"The other key is to get people the training they need to move up that ladder to get that better paying job, because there are a ton of highly skilled jobs that are available that I think these people could get to, but we just need to provide them that ladder to get to that job," he says.

Target 2 found a year long wait list, at 400 people and counting, looking for a federal housing subsidy. That's just in Brown County.

READ: Brown County talks new housing navigator position

Another pilot program awaiting the governor's signature prioritizes chronically homeless on that wait list, trying to free up bottlenecks getting people through shelters and into stable housing.

Rep. Steineke is also waiting for the governor to sign off on the creation of an Interagency Council on Homelessness, to find overlap or gaps in services.

In the budget, lawmakers also approved spending $660,800 over two years to expand the Opening Avenues to Reentry Services (OARS) program to five additional counties, including Shawano, Menominee, Langlade, Lincoln and Eau Claire Counties. The program helps mentally ill inmates upon release from prison.

He admits there's still a lot more to be done but is glad to see action after more than a decade of silence on this once secret problem.

READ: Resources for families who are struggling to get by

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