New details on downtown situation emerge as city considers homelessness social worker
An interesting debate popped up about creating a city human services department
A quiet report at the end of a January Public Health and Safety Committee meeting about some issues with homeless individuals causing trouble in the downtown led to a firestorm. At odds are the need to protect downtown businesses and their customers, against those who believe the city wants to criminalize homelessness.
Details released in May’s Human Resources packet show the downtown in a little more stark relief. (In our last story, which I will link below, I spoke with several downtown business owners and some confirmed the issues downtown with The Wausonian.)
The new information comes as the police department is now seeking to have the homeless liaison officer position reclassified as a social worker, non-police officer. Funding could initially come through ARPA dollars (pandemic relief funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act). Right now, no officer is working the liaison position.
Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven offered some details about the increase in downtown activity. Essentially, the numbers of police hours devoted to working on incidents involving homeless individuals has increased dramatically. I put those hours in a bar graph:
Ald. Tom Kilian asked about numbers of incidents associated with those calls. Bliven didn’t have them handy but said he had them back at the office. The Wausonian has requested those as well.
According to the report in the packet, Compass Properties is considering funding a Community Service Officer for the building. According to the police report, the building and its staff are, on a daily basis, dealing with homeless individuals squatting, getting into fights, panhandling and arguing with staff about building rules. (Full disclosure: City Pages’ offices used to be in the building and I did witness a couple of those altercations. Mostly though I would see people hanging out near the Chamber of Commerce end of the building.)
That situation at the library? Apparently there have often been fights in the library, either inside the entrance or in front of it. It’s led several library patrons to say they’re never coming back. Officers are walking through the library nearly daily, the report says. This from a library staff that wants to be welcoming to everyone, including the homeless.
Wipfli told police that there are daily issues in the Jefferson Street ramp and the skywalk leading to it. They find urine, feces and garbage all the time. Employees need to wear a mask to walk through the stairwells, even when the mess is cleaned up, due to the horrible smell.
Officers had to pepper spray a man and arrest him after he was in the stairwell with a hammer. He broke the hammer after refusing police commands.
A new solution
These details were included in the packet because the police department is now lobbying for a non-officer social worker position to take on the role that Officer Eric Lemirand played. As the Homeless Liaison Officer, Lemirand and the social worker partner from North Central Health Care worked with 42 individuals either homeless or pretty close to it. Of those, they were able to get 29 housed and those 29 had nearly no police contact after Lemirand intervened.
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