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Homeless youth falling between the cracks

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – The intractable problem of homelessness is often one shied away from by politicians.

Though most can agree on the immediate response – the need for food, clothes and shelter – there is often little consensus on long-term solutions.

“What I’ve come to learn over the last few years of working on this issue is that the issue of homelessness, at least in Wisconsin, has actually been both pervasive and steady,” said Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna. “Every corner of the state, whether rural or urban, has people experiencing homelessness every single night. There has been very little done on homelessness for decades, under both Republican and Democrat majorities. The conversation, resources and momentum were all very stagnant.”

Though the numbers across the board are alarming, the growing youth homeless population is even more bothersome.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), in the 2017-18 school year one in every 22 students enrolled in the Green Bay Area Public School District was reported as homeless at one point in the school year.

Green Bay had 945 students reported as homeless, Ashwaubenon had 76, Howard-Suamico had 74, De Pere had 51 and West De Pere had 47.

Youth who become homeless after leaving a difficult family situation have little or no options.

In Northeast Wisconsin, local representatives on both sides of the aisle have taken it upon themselves to bring the struggles of homelessness to the forefront and make tackling it a priority.

“Whether you have an R or a D after your name, everyone wants to see those without a home find success and independence,” Steineke said. “We may sometimes disagree on the details or the exact route to take to get there, but when we all have the same end goal, it makes working across the aisle that much easier.”

Shortly after taking office earlier this year, Rep. Staush Gruszynski, D-Green Bay, began reaching out to advocates working directly with individuals experiencing homelessness in Greater Green Bay.

“While touring House of Hope and discussing barriers to addressing youth homelessness, the shelter’s community engagement manager brought Senate Bill 61 to my attention,” Gruszynski said.

Senate Bill 61 would allow 17-year-olds to seek help at homeless shelters and transitional housing throughout the state, something that is not possible now without a legal guardian.

“After learning that this policy change could have a direct, positive impact for 17-year-olds experiencing homelessness in Wisconsin by enabling them to take advantage of existing shelter resources, I signed on as a cosponsor of the bill,” Gruszynski said. “It’s absolutely imperative that we provide a safe shelter for children in our community who are facing homelessness, abuse and neglect.”

House of Hope supports the bill, saying it’s a much needed mechanism for homeless and unaccompanied 17-year-olds.

“We believe it is always best for people to have a positive natural support system, but we want to make sure that no child is experiencing homelessness, being trafficked or sleeping in places not meant for human habitation if they don’t have that support in place,” said House of Hope Director Shannon Wienandt. “Senate Bill 61 makes it possible for people to consent to stay at a shelter at age 17.”

Of the people served by House of Hope last year, 51 percent did not graduate high school or have a GED and 26 percent were in foster care system when they were children, Wienandt said.

“Without targeted intervention, youth currently experiencing homelessness will become chronically homeless adults,” she said.

The bill received strong bipartisan support in the Assembly and is currently in the Senate.

Steineke voted in support of the bill back in May and is hopeful the Senate will follow the Assembly’s lead and approve the legislation so it can make its way to the governor’s desk.

“The goal of the bill is to give more support to kids who may be from broken homes, have homes that are abusive and/or dangerous or are living out of a car or on a friend’s couch,” Steineke said. “Kids in these situations are already at risk of falling behind or even not finishing high school, which is key in them going on to be successful.”

Both Gruszynski and Steineke agree homelessness isn’t something that just goes away overnight.

“I’m proud that we don’t fall victim to the mentality of just throwing money at a problem and hoping it goes away,” Steineke said. “We have consistently supported measures that have a track record of results, so we know we’re being smart with the resources we do have. These tactics are the building blocks to a firm foundation to combat homelessness, and they will allow us to keep building on successes as we continue to prioritize this issue.”

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