The homelessness crisis in Wisconsin prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was dire. The overall number of homeless people in and out of shelters in Wisconsin from the Point-in-Time count from January 2020 was 4,515. The homelessness situation in our state has been exacerbated by the pandemic, the accompanying economic downturn, the lack of available affordable housing, and decades-long racial disparities in our homelessness systems and housing markets. If we are to end homelessness as we know it in Wisconsin, we need a massive “All Hands on Deck” effort to address the issues that are now inextricable from our homelessness crisis.
The prevailing concern we are seeing throughout Wisconsin, in urban, suburban, and rural areas during this pandemic, is an increase in unsheltered homelessness - homelessness where people are sleeping outside or in places not meant for human habitation (examples being automobiles, campers, tents, and storage lockers). There are several reasons for this. One is the effect that guidelines for social distancing by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) have had on emergency shelters. Almost every shelter in Wisconsin is in a building not originally designed to shelter people. As such, conditions for sleeping typically have been very close. To adhere to the CDC guidelines, most emergency shelters had to dramatically reduce their capacities, stop taking new clients, or close entirely in response to the pandemic. Additionally, many people who were doubled-up in housing needed to leave where they were staying and many homeless people declined to seek emergency shelter out of fear of contracting coronavirus.