(First published in the November 14, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Wausau’s new no-loitering ordinance in parking ramps prompts a bigger conversation about homelessness
Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven speaks Tuesday about the loitering ordinance and a new task force to address homelessness.
When Wausau alderman Dennis Smith suggested opening the city-owned former Sears building to homeless people, he doubted aloud if those in the audience so vocal during Tuesday’s city council meeting would be willing to volunteer for shifts to supervise it.
“I would,” one man stood up and shouted.
Others quickly followed, prompting a rabble only quelled by Mayor Robert Mielke’s gavel.
The city council Tuesday night approved an ordinance that would make loitering and consuming alcohol in the parking ramps illegal, punishable by a $50 fine, which some have called criminalizing the homeless. But one thing became clear in the packed council chambers: people are disappointed with the lack of progress in reducing homelessness in the community.
The awareness began with the parking ramp loitering ordinance passed by the city’s Public Health and Safety Committee last month. The ordinance gives police the authority now to prevent people from occupying these areas—especially the confined stairwell. Police have long fielded complaints from downtown business owners and employees who must step over people sleeping in their own vomit, are harassed and verbally assaulted by people in stairwells and skywalks, and feel unsafe coming to and from work. Downtown employees have told City Pages there’s a women’s safety issue at play, and that the homeless population isn’t necessarily the problem, but other loiterers in general. The conversation on social media and in public has perhaps never been so robust.
Police Chief Ben Bliven told the crowd assembled Tuesday that the police, city officials and other stakeholders this week are forming a task force to find ways to better address the homeless population. And a citizens action group formed spontaneously on Saturday, bringing blankets and food to homeless people under the bridge near downtown.
The measure passed 8-3, despite concern from council members and public speakers including the owner of the former Rainbow Coin Laundry, which was burned down allegedly by a homeless person.
Smith told the audience this ordinance isn’t targeting homeless people but particular behavior, and that people should be able to go to work safely. “My sympathy for people that sleep in those stairwells — you would almost need an electron microscope to see it.”
While the solution might not be opening up Sears to the homeless, it does seem like it might finally spark some action on an issue that’s lain dormant in Wausau for some time.
Concerned people join together to help the homeless
A group of concerned people on Saturday walked to the gazebo at Big Bull Falls Park to take blankets and food to homeless people.
Sandi Kelch didn’t like Wausau’s recently passed city ordinance seemingly targeted at fining the homeless population. So she decided to take action.
For the past two years, she has been helping homeless people by bringing them food, clothing and blankets. This time she decided to sound off on Facebook about the ordinance and that she wanted to help homeless people again. And this time, others rallied to her cause and joined her on Saturday, Nov. 9 to bring supplies to homeless people.
She and others first stopped at the gazebo off Stewart Avenue, just across the river from downtown. But those at the gazebo told the group that individuals camped out under the bridge need supplies far more than they did, Kelch told City Pages. So her group went there and were alarmed to find about a dozen people living there. They gave out blankets plus hand warmers to those huddled against the cold.
That outing formed a new group: the Marathon County Community Outreach Task Force. Now comprised of more than 80 members on a private Facebook group “almost overnight,” Kelch says, they’re focused on two things: helping the homeless population in the Wausau area, and helping children who have deficits on their school lunch accounts. Those are both issues important to the founding six members, Kelch says.
Kelch is a caregiver for an adult son with a disability and works for Instacart to earn money. She doesn’t see the group becoming an official non-profit — Kelch wants to avoid all the pitfalls of a large organization and instead wants to focus on accomplishing what needs to be done in a grassroots manner.
Anyone interested can find Marathon County Community Outreach Task Force on Facebook and ask to join.