Recently, Intellegere Foundation sat down with Brown County Supervisor and Human Services Committee Chair, Erik Hoyer, to discuss homelessness.
“What’s unique about Green Bay,” Hoyer said, “is that we’re a city that has a homeless problem that doesn’t think it has a homeless problem.”
According to the Institute for Community Alliances (ICA) most recent report, 21,906 people experienced homelessness that could be documented and of those people, 1,930 came from Brown County alone. It should be noted that these numbers only account for people who sought services, not for those that did not. The numbers could be quite higher.
Hoyer referenced Green Bay’s long history of struggling with poor and homeless populations going back to the mid-1800s, “there has always been an issue here.” Hoyer adds,
“I think it’s just been a quieter issue. And now we’re trying to make it… a little bit louder.”
We asked Hoyer what resources Brown County has to help its homeless population. He explained that Brown County provides services for people, “suffering economic stress, for those with mental health issues, for those with alcohol issues.”
Interestingly, he mentioned that there is a legal issue which keeps counties from directly funding shelters. In 2017, Shawano County Counsel sought an opinion from State’s Attorney General Brad Schimel regarding the appropriation of funds to a non-profit organization operating a food bank. AG Schimel indicated, based on the powers afforded to counties by the Wisconsin Constitution, that counties do not have the authority to appropriate funds which are not specifically authorized in Wis. Stat. § 59.53.   This includes homeless shelters.
Brown, and other Wisconsin counties, focus on providing other services. Hoyer explains, “what we usually do as a county is usually supplement the actual domicile component with the other services that might be necessary or helpful.” These services include helping with money management, job finding assistance, and mental health.
Hoyer mentioned that there is often a co-occurring mental health condition for many of those facing homelessness. According a 2017 report from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 45% of homeless Wisconsinites are suffering mental illness. This is more than twice as high as the state overall; 18.75%.  However, Hoyer was quick to point out that he did not “want to […] put everyone in that basket.” While a significant number of the homeless population is affected by mental illness there are a range of other issues at play.
“One of the issues of homelessness is, of course, the rent is too damn high.” Hoyer also discussed the Brown County Housing Authority (BCHA) and the implementation of housing assistance vouchers.
The “Housing Choice Voucher” (formerly known as section 8) is a program designed to provide financial assistance for low-income families and individuals. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and undertaken in Brown Co. by Integrated Community Solutions. For qualified applicants, the program pays the costs of rent exceeding 30% of the applicants’ income. For some reference, the current income limit for a family of 4 is $ 38,750.  
The voucher program has been successful in helping families secure housing stability, however, ICS indicates that once the completed application has been submitted applicants will need to wait about 3 months before receiving services. 
“In general, the waiting list is approximately three months for Brown County residents.”
Bear in mind, under Wis. Stat. § 704.17(2)(a) a tenant has just 5 days from the notification of a missed payment to either pay the rent or leave the property. Furthermore, if a tenant had been notified, within the past year, of a missed payment but managed to pay the rent within the 5 days then they can be evicted with 14 days notice and no option to pay.
“If a tenant […] fails to pay any installment of rent when due, the tenant’s tenancy is terminated if the landlord gives the tenant notice requiring the tenant to pay rent or vacate on or before a date at least 5 days after the giving of the notice and if the tenant fails to pay accordingly.” 
Essentially, families seeking support, living paycheck to paycheck, and struggling to pay rent can be evicted faster than their housing assistance can be approved.
The United Way’s ALICE report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) compares household incomes to a location adjusted “survival budget” (representing the basic costs of necessities) to provide an idea of how many people are living paycheck to paycheck. According to the most recent data, 37% of Wisconsinites fall below the ALICE threshold.  The report also indicates 48% of Green Bay, 40% of Madison, and 60% of Milwaukee residents are living paycheck to paycheck. 
Homelessness should not be seen as something that happens to “other people.” For over 800,000 Wisconsin households, a missed paycheck or unexpected expense can be the thing that sets off a chain reaction of events resulting in the loss of housing.
In Green Bay and across Wisconsin, losing your home can be a life-threatening situation. The frigid cold (Green Bay had a high of -4 ℉ today) is at the forefront but there are many other risks faced as well. In November, a homeless man who was using a dumpster died after a garbage truck emptied the dumpster. In December, another homeless man was found dead under more suspicious circumstances.
In addition, housing instability poses significant challenges for families with children. According to the ICA’s report, 42% of those experiencing homelessness sought services as a family and 5,740 of the clients served in 2017 were children.  The American Psychological Association (APA) reports, “A quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence and 22% have been separated from their families.”  The APA report also indicates that children experiencing homelessness are more likely to suffer a learning disability, childhood depression, anxiety or other behavioral disorder. The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness reports that not only are homeless high-schoolers more likely to be bullied, but that one in five high-schoolers who identify as LBGTQ are homeless.
Hoyer expressed a desire to do more, stating he “would like to see more collaboration between Green Bay, which is honestly the epicenter of the homeless issue in our region versus the county.” He noted that the county has not had a real presence on the Brown County Task Force for the Homeless (now known as Brown County Homeless and Housing Coalition).
“While having to provide more human services is a challenge and it’s really an unfortunate reality of our society and of our community, I think it’s also a good thing that we show we’re taking care of it […] if there is a need, we have an obligation to address it.”
Brown County has a variety of resources to help address homelessness. They include, but are not limited to:
- CRISIS CENTER
- ECONOMIC HELP
- HOUSING ASSISTANCE
- LEGAL SERVICES
- FAMILY SERVICES
- RENT ASSISTANCE
This is a production of Intellegere Foundation’s ‘Wisconsin Homelessness Project.’ The aim of the project is to advance public discourse and engagement on issues of homelessness in the state. If you are uniquely involved with homelessness anywhere in Wisconsin we would love to speak with you. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you to Brown Co. Supervisor Erik Hoyer for sharing his experience with us. We would also like to say thank you to Jonathan Virant for providing assistance writing, editing, and researching the article.