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New approach to homelessness in Eau Claire offers promise

Last year, Whitney Tate found herself homeless, surviving on Eau Claire’s streets as best she could with the assistance of shelters and soup kitchens.

Then she had a baby girl, and a difficult homeless life became even more precarious.

“When you’re out on the streets, things are tough,” Tate, 23, said early Friday afternoon as she served meals at Positive Avenues, an Eau Claire day shelter operated by Lutheran Social Services where she volunteers.

Officials at agencies and others who deal with homelessness in Eau Claire envision a day when fewer people like Tate need to spend nights in shelters or out on the street because they don’t have homes of their own. They hope more people can obtain the food they need, come up with enough money to pay rent, find transportation to jobs or other locations, and receive the services they may need to live better lives.

Those endeavors are possible, according to a report issued recently by New York-based consultant Erin Healy, who had worked to reduce homelessness in cities across the U.S. and who visited Eau Claire in fall to ascertain the homeless situation here. But doing so will require a shift in thinking about addressing the homeless population, Healy said.

New approach needed

In her report titled “Establishing a Collaborative in Eau Claire to End Homelessness: Initial Assessment and Recommended Next Steps,” Healy states that Eau Claire has multiple strengths that make significant homeless reductions possible, such as experienced leaders working at agencies that address homelessness, willing volunteers and philanthropic resources.

However, her report notes, simply continuing with existing services is not curbing homeless numbers. Despite the growth of efforts, such as the Housing First program operated by Western Dairyland Community Action Agency, to address homelessness in recent years, the number of people without homes in Eau Claire continues to grow, those familiar with that population said.

As a lack of affordable housing for many in the city becomes a bigger issue, the number of homeless residents in the city could increase more, they said.

“There are a lot of good efforts being made now to address homelessness,” said Keith Johnathan, executive director of the city Housing Authority. “But that work is not solving the problem ... We need to come up with a different way of working on this issue.”

Working together

While Eau Claire is home to agency leaders with experience and expertise addressing homelessness, those efforts focus mainly on providing services to those without homes instead of finding ways to effectively reduce the homeless population, Healy said. She advocates forming a collaborative effort that grows the number of community partners involved with working to reduce homelessness.

Long term, she said, housing more people in need would free up resources to better address prevention efforts that could keep people from losing their homes.

Current agencies such as Western Dairyland, Catholic Charities, Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, Bolton Refuge House and others that provide shelter and services to homeless people sometimes work collaboratively, Healy said. But those organizations must work more closely, she said, and the number of groups working on homelessness should grow to more directly involve such entities as local government, L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, hospitals, the local faith community and others.

“Based on my experiences during my weeklong visit (to Eau Claire), the timing is excellent to formally launch a collaborative that focuses on ending homelessness rather than on addressing need for short-term sheltering alone,” she said in her report.

New approach

A collaborative team would be responsible for devising specific homeless-related initiatives, Healy said, and she advocates that its approach not continue the status quo but that team members take “bold action on an issue.”

While no specific approaches have been finalized, during her visit to Eau Claire, Healy described a “sprint” approach in which the collaborative would work intensely for 100 days to address a specific homeless-related problem, such as housing as many homeless individuals as possible during that time. Healy has used similar approaches in other cities, including an effort in La Crosse.

Altering how Eau Claire addresses homelessness is necessary for improved outcomes, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. She is part of the team that brought Healy here.

“We have focused on sheltering and making sure people have a roof over their head, and we have done a good job of that,” Giese said. “But we have not had a collaborative focus on housing people ... How do we make sure that homelessness is a temporary, brief experience for people and not a long-term way of being in Eau Claire?”

Doing so would have to involve increased collaboration, Giese said, and a willingness to think about homelessness differently.

“Do we have the bandwidth to say we want to do something different?” Giese said. “That is a big challenge we have to figure out.”

Housing problem

Among other homeless-related challenges is the lack of available housing for homeless residents seeking homes, said Ken Adler, an Eau Claire resident who is involved with addressing the city’s homeless needs. A tight rental market and a lack of affordable housing mean landlords often refuse to rent to people with evictions or criminal records, leaving some without places to live.

Western Dairyland officials said they have experienced that scenario repeatedly as they try to find homes for homeless people they serve. The agency recently learned it can expand its Housing First program by 10 tenants, but so far doing so has proven difficult as landlords have not been willing to rent to those affiliated with the initiative despite Western Dairyland’s guarantee to pay rents.

“It is a real big problem,” Adler said.

Resources needed

Other challenges include finding resources to provide housing and other services to more homeless people, those involved with the initiative agreed. Kelly Christianson is executive director of Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, which operates the Beacon House shelter for homeless families. She said she backs involving Healy in the Eau Claire homeless scene and believes a new approach could be beneficial, but she questions where added funding could come from as agencies like hers struggle to meet current needs.

“How do we come up with those resources,” she said, “and how do we utilize those resources more efficiently?”

Those backing the most recent plan to address homelessness hope to bring Healy back to Eau Claire. But procuring her services for six months would cost an estimated $40,000 to $50,000, money the group hasn’t garnered.

“We are very excited to bring Erin back here,” said Johnathan, of the Housing Authority, “but right now we just don’t have the money to do that.”

If that money can be obtained, he said, the group would like to kick off a homeless-related initiative in upcoming months. Despite funding and other challenges, he is optimistic a significant reduction in the number of Eau Claire residents who are homeless is possible.

“It is doable. We can do this,” Johnathan said. “There will always be a need for the shelters. But if we can do things better, we can hopefully reduce how many people need those services.”

Tate hopes a new approach to more effectively serve Eau Claire’s homeless population becomes a reality. Her situation has improved, as she and her 7-month-old daughter, Octavia, now live with a friend. She is on a waiting list for subsidized housing.

“If you stick with it, the system does work,” she said. “But it would be good if it could work more quickly for more people in need.”

Trump: Shutdown could last 'months, even years'

Lisa Mascaro

and Jill Colvin

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump declared Friday he could keep parts of the government shut down for “months or even years” as he and Democratic leaders failed in a second closed-door meeting to resolve his demand for billions of dollars for a border wall with Mexico. They did agree to a new round of weekend talks between staff members and White House officials.

Trump met in the White House Situation Room with congressional leaders from both parties as the shutdown hit the two-week mark amid an impasse over his wall demands. Democrats emerged from the roughly two-hour meeting, which both sides said was contentious at times, to report little if any progress.

The standoff also prompted economic jitters and anxiety among some in Trump’s own party. But he appeared in the Rose Garden for an impromptu news conference to frame the upcoming weekend talks as progress, while making clear he would not reopen the government.

“We won’t be opening until it’s solved,” Trump said. “I don’t call it a shutdown. I call it doing what you have to do for the benefit and the safety of our country.”

Trump said he could declare a national emergency to build the wall without congressional approval but would first try a “negotiated process.” Trump previously described the situation at the border as a “national emergency” before he dispatched active-duty troops in what critics described as a pre-election stunt.

Trump also said the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay would want him to “keep going” and fight for border security. Asked how people would manage without a financial safety net, he declared: “The safety net is going to be having a strong border because we’re going to be safe.”

Democrats, on the other hand, spoke of families unable to pay bills and called on Trump to reopen the government while negotiations continue. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, “It’s very hard to see how progress will be made unless they open up the government.”

Trump stands firm

Friday’s White House meeting with Trump included eight congressional leaders — the top two Democrats and Republicans of both chambers. People familiar with the session but not authorized to speak publicly described Trump as holding forth at length on a range of subjects but said he made clear he was firm in his demand for $5.6 billion in wall funding and in rejecting the Democrats’ request to reopen the government.

Trump confirmed that he privately told Democrats the shutdown could drag on for months or years, though he said he hoped it wouldn’t last that long. Said Trump: “I hope it doesn’t go on even beyond a few more days.”

House Democrats muscled through legislation Thursday night to fund the government but not Trump’s proposed wall. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said those measures are nonstarters on his side of the Capitol without the president’s support.

A variety of strategies are being floated inside and outside the White House, among them trading wall funding for a deal on immigrants brought to the country as young people and now here illegally, or using a national emergency declaration to build the wall.

Seeking to ease concerns, the White House sought to frame the weekend talks as a step forward, as did McConnell, who described plans for a “working group,” though people familiar with the meeting said that phrase never actually came up. Trump designated Vice President Mike Pence, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and adviser Jared Kushner to work with a congressional delegation over the weekend. That meeting is set for 11 a.m. today, the White House said.

Senators worry

Some GOP senators up for re-election in 2020 voiced discomfort with the shutdown in recent days, including Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, putting additional pressure on Republicans to find a quick solution.

But with staff level talks there is always an open question of whether Trump’s aides are fully empowered to negotiate for the president. Earlier this week, he rejected his own administration’s offer to accept $2.5 billion for the wall. That proposal was made when Pence and other top officials met at the start of the shutdown with Schumer.

During his free-wheeling session with reporters, Trump also wrongly claimed that he’d never called for the wall to be concrete. Trump did so repeatedly during his campaign, describing a wall of pre-cast concrete sections that would be higher than the walls of many of his rally venues. He repeated that promise just days ago.

“An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED, as has been reported by the media. Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!,” he tweeted on Dec. 31.

Adding to national unease about the shutdown are economic jitters as analysts warn of the risks of closures that are disrupting government operations across multiple departments and agencies at a time of other uncertainties in the stock market and foreign trade.

Trump was joined by Pence in the Rose Garden, as well as House Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise. McConnell, who went back to the Capitol, unaware of the news conference, said it was encouraging that the White House officials and the congressional contingent would meet over the weekend “to see if they can reach an agreement and then punt it back to us for final sign off.”

Schumer said that if McConnell and Senate Republicans stay on the sidelines, “Trump can keep the government shut down for a long time.”

“The president needs an intervention,” Schumer said. “And Senate Republicans are just the right ones to intervene.”

Economic jitters

Adding to national unease about the shutdown are economic jitters as analysts warn of the risks of closures that are disrupting government operations across multiple departments and agencies at a time of other uncertainties in the stock market and foreign trade.

In their first votes of the new Congress, House Democrats approved bills Thursday night to reopen government at previously agreed upon levels. Several Republicans crossed over to join them.

White House and Department of Homeland Security officials have spent recent days trying to make both a public and private case that the situation at the border has reached a crisis point. Polls show a majority of Americans oppose the border wall, although Republicans strongly support it.

Area lawmakers split on drunken driving bill

State Sen.-elect Kathy Bernier contends that a proposed bill that would make a first drunken driving offense a crime isn’t needed.

“I don’t think the first offense should be criminalized,” Bernie, R-Lake Hallie, said Friday. “Most people self-correct. The fines are significant, their insurance premiums go up, and they are humiliated. I don’t think we need more. Everyone deserves a second chance in life.”

Two Republican legislators, Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, have introduced legislation ahead of next week’s opening of the new legislative session to make a first drunken driving offense a crime, punishable up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail. The legislators have introduced the measure in the past, but it has never gained much traction.

Wisconsin traditionally has been among the top states for drunken driving arrests, and an average of one person was killed or injured in an alcohol-related crash every 2.9 hours on Wisconsin roads in 2015, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Legislators in the Chippewa Valley are split on whether the first offense should be a crime. Gov.-elect Tony Evers has indicated he supports the proposal.

Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, is skeptical on whether it is needed.

“Overall, drunk driving is going down,” Summerfield said. “I think education (about the dangers of driving drunk) is the best. Is this contradicting where we’re going, with moving toward rehab? If someone is .081 (blood alcohol level), are they a criminal?”

Summerfield noted that more people are using services like Uber and Lyft, and the state needs to focus on education and promoting safe rides. He’d rather see legislation that strengthens penalties for repeat offenders and those who are caught with high blood alcohol levels.

Sen.-elect Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, said he’d like to see the legislation become law.

“It’s one of the issues I was supportive of when I was in the Legislature before,” Smith said. “There is such an embedded drinking culture in Wisconsin, and we’ve got to do all we can to change that. If we’re going to be tough on drugs, we’ve got to be tough on alcohol.”

Smith said the measure wouldn’t necessarily correct all the problems, and he added that he wanted to see a focus on treating alcoholism and getting people past their need for over-consumption.

Rep.-elect Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said she didn’t want to comment on the specific bill because she hasn’t read the proposal yet.

“As a whole, I think it’s time we revisit what we’re doing with drunk driving,” Emerson said. “I’m glad the issue is coming up.”

Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, said he also hasn’t read the bill yet and didn’t want to comment at this time. Rep.-elect Jesse James, R-Altoona, and Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Wisconsin is the only state where a first drunken driving offense isn’t considered a crime.

Under the Ott and Darling proposal, first offenders who don’t commit another operating while intoxicated offense for five years could ask a judge to vacate the conviction and amend the record to a civil violation.

“This bill shows that Wisconsin is taking drunk driving seriously, while at the same time offering a second chance to those who do not re-offend within five years,” Ott said in a statement.

Other bills in the package would mandate that anyone convicted of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle be sentenced to at least five years in prison; require first-time offenders to appear in court even if they’re tagged with a civil violation; and increase minimum sentences for fifth and sixth offenses from six months to 18 months.

The two lawmakers introduced the same bills last session to no avail.

Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, was noncommittal when asked about the bills’ chances, saying only that Republican senators plan to discuss policy priorities later this month.

Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t immediately respond to an email.

Ott and Darling introduced a similar bill in 2012 that would have made a first offense a misdemeanor if the driver’s blood alcohol level was 0.15 percent or higher. The new measure doesn’t include minimum BALs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Eric Lindquist / File photo 


Walker won't rule out running again

MADISON — Ousted Gov. Scott Walker said Friday that he would be interested in running for public office again, maybe even for governor in four years.

Walker spoke to the Associated Press from the vacated governor’s mansion as he prepares to be replaced Monday by Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers. Walker, a presidential candidate in the 2016 race, served two terms as governor before Evers narrowly defeated him in November.

Walker’s immediate plans are to hit the speaking circuit, advocating for conservative proposals and talking up the conservative agenda he enacted in Wisconsin.

Walker said he also sees himself as President Donald Trump’s chief advocate in Wisconsin — comments that came just days after fellow Republican Mitt Romney, also a former governor, penned a scathing op-ed questioning Trump’s character.

Walker, who said he hadn’t read Romney’s column, defended Trump’s record and said no other Republican could defeat him in the presidential primaries in 2020.

“Donald Trump, I believe, will be the nominee,” Walker said.

When Walker dropped out of the presidential race in 2015, he urged others to join him and unite to defeat Trump. He later endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz before finally backing Trump after his nomination was all but certain.

Walker acknowledged there are a “few things” he wishes Trump had done differently, pointing to “tweets and words” the president has used. But he praised Trump’s judicial appointments, his signing of the new tax law and his trade agreements that Walker said have helped Wisconsin’s dairy and manufacturing industries.

“I’m old school,” Walker said. “I believe that actions speak louder than words. Are there tweets or words occasionally that I wish he would do differently? Absolutely. I think even some of his most ardent supporters would say that.”

Walker said his wife, Tonette, has encouraged him not to rule out another run for office — but he did foreclose any long-shot challenge to Trump in 2020.

“No, no, no,” he said. “As much as my wife encouraged me to say, ‘someday run,’ that would not be a position she would encourage me to run for right now.”

Walker, who has been in elected office for 25 years, is planning to hit the national speaking circuit to advocate for taking power out of the federal government and giving it to the states. But the 51-year-old said he has to decide whether elected office, including in the U.S. Senate, might be the best place for him to make the argument.

“It may be, in the end, I’m better equipped to make those changes become a reality not in elected office,” he said. “But I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.”

As for a future run at the governor’s office, Walker said: “If Republicans are going to make the case, it’s probably worth, at least for governor, having a new face, a new name on the ballot for that. But you never rule anything out.”

Evers’ spokeswoman Carrie Lynch declined to comment. But Wisconsin Democratic Party spokeswoman Courtney Beyer said Walker “clearly doesn’t know what to do with himself now that he’s out of a job.” She said voters who elected Evers were “eager to turn the page on the politics of the past and ... Scott Walker would be wise to listen.”

Walker is considering running to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in 2022. Johnson, who is in his second term, has said he won’t run for a third time. Walker said he was looking at the experience of other former governors who have gone on to serve in the Senate.

“They’ll tell you often they’re frustrated,” Walker said. “To me, I wouldn’t want to go somewhere and be frustrated just for the sake of a title. I want to be able to get something done.”