With near-unanimous support, the state Legislature is sending two bills to Gov. Scott Walker to create a new structure to deal with homelessness and let state agencies prioritize chronically homeless people for federal housing vouchers.

The state Senate on Tuesday voted 32-0 to create an Interagency Council on Homelessness — initially to be chaired by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch — that would contain the secretaries of eight agencies and others. The bill designates a director of the council in the Department of Administration, with compensation up to $95,000 for the position.

The Senate also unanimously approved a bill giving the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority the ability to pilot a program to give priority to chronically homeless people on the waiting list for federal Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8.

“These bills provide real help and real hope to the homeless,” Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said in a statement.

The bills, already approved by the state Assembly overwhelmingly, now go to Walker.

The legislation is among a Republican package of bills and items in the now-signed state budget to address homelessness.

Although much remains to be done, the initiatives signal progress, said Joseph Volk, executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness.

“It’s a baby step, but it’s the biggest baby step in 25 years,” Volk said. “I think it’s exciting that for the first time in 25 years these issues have been addressed.”

Hopes for increased attention to homelessness rose through 2016 and 2017 as Kleefisch made the issue a priority and the coalition offered specific policy and budget recommendations, which echoed problems raised by the Wisconsin State Journal in a four-part project last year.

In 2015, more than 27,500 people received shelter or services for being homeless in the state, Darling said.

“Today’s unanimous action by the state Senate again proves Wisconsin’s bipartisan commitment to tackling the problem of homelessness in our state,” Kleefisch said.

The interagency council, seen as the centerpiece, would include the secretaries of the departments of Administration, Health Services, Children and Families, Workforce Development, Veterans Affairs, Corrections, Public Instruction and others.

“This new council will serve a vital role breaking down silos between agencies and provide ongoing leadership as we implement these legislative and budget initiatives,” Kleefisch said.

Volk added, “One of our goals was to create a structure to allow the state to make continuing progress around these issues.”

Previously approved moves would:

  • Create a homeless services coordinator to develop a waiver to use Medicaid funds for intensive case management to implement a housing first strategy to move the homeless to permanent housing.
  • Direct underused, previously allocated state money — about $300,000 — for transitional housing, to be used for additional types of housing models, and free separate homelessness prevention funds to be used where there is the greatest need statewide.
  • Provide 10 $50,000 grants to homeless shelters annually to deliver intensive, employment-based case management for homeless families.
  • Deliver a matching grant for a municipality to initiate a pilot program that deploys a van to pick up homeless people and pay them to clean up public places. The state would provide a total $150,000 over two years.
  • Provide $660,800 in each year of the biennium to expand a program to five more counties that serves mentally ill inmates being released from prison.
  • Amend the state’s transitional housing statute to create flexibility for grant funds to support homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing.

Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, whose own package of bills would have tripled the state’s funding commitment to $6.7 million but never got a hearing, said more must be done and that she hopes Republicans don’t consider their initiatives the end.

“I’d be thrilled if we were working together toward a real solution,” she said.

Volk said he hopes the legislation and budget items mean momentum for more progress, citing many needs including a prevention program that would help those struck by a temporary setback and needing assistance to avoid homelessness.

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