« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Counting the homeless

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Twice a year, the homeless are counted. In Marathon County, and many other parts of Wisconsin, the counting happens this weekend. There are teams of volunteers who spend the overnight looking for those who don’t have shelter. They’ll look in parks, under bridges and highway overpasses, in parking ramps, and in rural areas.

I cannot image being outdoors in the cold of winter. And while we’re doing a better job, more needs to be done. In Wausau the Salvation Army has a homeless shelter. There’s another shelter near the YMCA in Stevens Point. Wausau also has a warming center that’s recently moved from downtown to the near-west side. While there’s been a recent change in leadership there, the overall concept is good and necessary.

There are special challenges in helping the homeless. You don’t want a homeless shelter to become a flop house. Most have requirements that people who sleep there actually leave the next day – supposedly to go look for work. Some just find their way to the shopping mall or the library. I’d assume there are special rules on very cold days. It would be inhumane to force people onto the street during this week’s cold snap. Some rules are silly. The ‘warming center’ has reclining chairs and blankets, but not beds. People need to sleep without being fully reclined so the facility can’t be classified as a shelter.

Two issues:  first, there a certain spiraling down when someone doesn’t have a roof over their head that makes it difficult or impossible to find work. When someone is unkempt, can’t shower and shave, wears dirty clothes and keeps their belongings in a shopping cart they tend not to make a very good impression at a job interview. There really needs to be a “bring people back” program where the homeless are cleaned up and groomed. The second, bigger problem is mental health. Many people who are homeless have mental health issues, and we’ve changed treatment programs to emphasize out-patient programs. Dr. Charles Krauthammer, a political commentator who used to be a staff psychtrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has written in favor of involuntary commitment for the mentally ill. Yes, people who are committed against their will are being denied personal freedoms. They are also, in the opinion of a trained, licensed doctor, not mentally able to be on their own. A bed in a psychiatric ward is better than spending the night on the street.

The last homeless census estimated about 1,100 people living on the street in Central Wisconsin (from roughly Merrill to Stevens Point). If there’s any good news from this, it’s a small enough number that it’s manageable to provide real life skills that could turn lives around. I’m skeptical that we have the programs in place that could make a difference.

Chris Conley

Image:  Homeless man in market, by yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau via wikicommons.com