The most controversial problems also are the most difficult to solve. Otherwise they wouldn’t be controversial.
Health care and immigration are two examples nationally. Affordable housing is an example close to home.
The Eau Claire City Council wants to do more to tackle the issue. The city’s 2020-2024 Capital Improvement Plan includes $1.25 million toward affordable housing to be spent in the last three years of the plan. A number of City Council members want action sooner.
It’s unclear how many people live on Eau Claire streets or huddle in homeless shelters because they can’t afford rent, but it likely is a factor in some. The old rule of thumb was that one shouldn’t spend more than a week’s pay on rent if they hope to meet their other monthly expenses. With monthly rents often in the $750 to $800 range, a single bread-winner making even $13 an hour would only be able to afford about $520 a month in rent. Add a child or two, and making ends meet becomes even more difficult.
It would be nice to put this issue on the fast track, but as City Council President Terry Weld said last month during a discussion on the issue, it would be unwise for the council to commit to quick spending of the $1.25 million in tax dollars before having a coherent strategy for how the money would be used.
Many things complicate this issue. First, we live in a very cold winter climate. The last thing anyone wants is to wake up one morning and read that one of our citizens froze to death in a parking ramp stairwell. I shiver walking to my car in a parking lot during the coldest days of winter; I can’t imagine trying to survive outside in such conditions, day or night.
Another issue is why people are homeless. There is no one answer. Sudden loss of job, non-payment of child support, a major medical event, a major unexpected expense such as a car going kaput, mental health issues, substance abuse, careless spending … it’s a long list.
Another thing to consider is whether the homeless situation is short-term or long-term, which impacts how many people can be helped for $1.25 million, or whatever. And what other barriers prevent folks from affording an apartment? Transportation? Job training? Health care and/or child care? Overcoming addiction? Holding deadbeat spouses more accountable for child support?
One thing working in our favor is a strong economy in which many companies are thirsting for workers. If someone is reliable, many employers are more willing to offer benefits such as health insurance. Of course, a strong economy also drives up the cost of rentals, especially in a university community where demand is strong.
Unfortunately, not everyone is riding the wave of this strong economy with low unemployment. A recent report from the Institute of Research on Poverty found that Eau Claire and Chippewa counties’ combined poverty rate of 14 percent is second only to Milwaukee County’s 17 percent among urban areas statewide.
It’s not accurate to say that many of us are indifferent to the homeless or those who are one major expense away from that fate. Remember, state and local taxpayers provide a free public education through 12th grade at a cost of more than $135 million a year in Eau Claire alone. Also, a third of Eau Claire County’s $113.6 million in spending this year will go toward health and social services.
Still, we fall short. Another story last month in the Leader-Telegram noted that the Eau Claire County Department of Human Services has exceeded its budget by about $5 million in the past three years and is expected to be some $2 million over budget this year. Some County Board members are concerned about such large deficits and want answers.
However, later in the story, readers learned that the county is dealing with an increase in “out-of-home” placements for children and adults whose living situation has become untenable.
“Eighty-five percent or more of the out-of-home placements for children are related to substance abuse,” said Diane Cable, director of human services.
It can be tempting to stigmatize those needing help with housing, which doesn’t move us closer to a solution.
Most of us, I believe, are willing to help those with short-term money problems as they right their financial ships. Those in long-term poverty pose a more serious challenge that $1.25 million can’t fix.
The solution? Complicated and difficult.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.