Homelessness: Austerity leads to Blindness

By Mary E. Croy

Eight bills and not even a band aid in sight. As homelessness continues to soar in Wisconsin, the Republican led legislature refuses to take action. There have been eight bills proposed, and only one is even being considered in the current session. In the state budget, $3.7 million was allocated to fight this problem, but nothing has made it to the governor’s desk.

Last June, the Assembly passed legislation, but it lingered in the Senate. Had it passed, more beds could’ve been provided before winter. However, excuses and dedication to austerity won the day. It is estimated that 20,000 children and adults are without a permanent residence in our state. In Madison an average of 225 people per day, including children, seek relief at the Beacon Shelter near downtown. 

In Milwaukee, a tent city has begun under the Hoan Bridge. Ironic, since the bridge is named after a great Socialist mayor. 

Homelessness exposes the racist nature of American society. For example, right here in Dane County, 5.1% of the population is African-American while 53% of the people who receive services for homelessness are African-American.

Our state spending on the homeless population is approximately $3.3 million annually and it has been at this sum for decades. Neighboring Minnesota meanwhile spends $44.3 million.

It is indeed a disgrace to our state and country to see people sleeping in the streets next to expensive restaurants, underneath the glaring lights of the capitol dome. 

While Republicans and other neoliberals scream about cost, the statistics speak for themselves. It costs the public $35,600 every year to care for a homeless person, while that sum can be cut in half with decent, affordable housing.

There’s a better way. In Vienna, Austria, public housing is considered the foundation for creating a livable and humane city. Socialists after World War I established a “social housing” policy that built not only apartments, but living spaces featuring kindergartens, health centers, playgrounds and workshops. They hired some of the leading architects to design beautiful buildings. Eligibility for public housing includes 80% of the population and this has led to a city where you cannot tell status by neighborhood. 

How’s it funded? Sources are varied: the income tax, corporate tax and a payroll tax. In exchange, most citizens pay about 20 – 25% of their income on rent—a rate most Madisonians would kill for. 62% of Vienna’s citizens live in social housing. Because both middle class and lower income people can participate and you can keep your apartment even if your income goes up, a wide mix of people live in public housing without stigma. The city has panels that judge new developments, which means that energy efficiency, beauty and convenience for the residents can be emphasized. About one third of new apartment complexes in Vienna are publicly funded. The city owns about 25% of all housing, and indirectly controls another 200,000 units which are owned by limited profit companies that are strictly regulated with the city keeping final control over development. About 5,000 new, subsidized units are made available every year, and these are open to lower and middle income people. 

It’s true that the problem of homelessness must be solved with a variety of tools, such as good mental health care, social support, innovative education and jobs, but affordable housing is essential in order to make our national disgrace a thing of the past. Red Vienna—the socialist movement that created one of the world’s most livable cities– can be a lesson for us as we build Red Madison.  

Thanks to Madison Central Library Reference Desk for research assistance.

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