The complications of Wausau's homelessness problem
It was a little over a year ago that I did a ride along with Officer Eric Lemirand. Lemirand seemed that rare instance of someone being perfect for the role they find themselves in. He’s patient, positive, curious and seems to genuinely want to help people. Perfect person for Wausau’s newest initiative at the time: Lemirand was the city’s Homeless Liaison Officer.
I watched him try to help some people. But some people aren’t always ready for help, even when most of society would view them as primed for it.
We stopped at the gazebo along the Wisconsin River. Most people in Wausau know “The Gazebo,” distinguished from other gazebos by its reputation for being the hangout of a number of Wausau’s homeless individuals. It’s not uncommon to see a police presence there.
Lemirand got out of the squad to chat with a woman there. I tried my best to hang back, and appear uninteresting so as not to make my presence threatening in any way. (I guess I blended in; a caregiver offered me a care package, and seemed a bit sheepish when I explained I was in fact a reporter riding along with Lemirand.)
I watched Lemirand speak with the woman for about 20 minutes. Besides a pretty friendly request for her and her friends to stop writing on the walls of the gazebo (“then people need to stop dying,” I recall her responding; Written there were the names of homeless folks who didn’t make it. Looking at them is a bit sobering.), Lemirand spent most of that time trying to get her to accept his offer of help.
“I will when I’m ready,” she told him several times, or some derivative of that. It might seem odd, as it does to Lemirand, that someone would need to “be ready” to not be homeless. But it’s not that simple. There are trust issues, fear of authority, plus often drugs, alcohol or mental health issues.
Once a homeless person accepts help, Lemirand would spring into action. He had connections with Catholic Charities, North Central Health Care, and the police department has a transition house to help move people from unhoused to housed.
I got wind awhile ago that the program might be having unintended consequences. Law enforcement sources told me Lemirand’s position might not be around much longer. The problem: people were apparently coming into the community from outside the area, and there were insinuations that Wausau’s success was being noticed outside the area. One anecdote had an officer from another community dropping off a homeless person in front of one of the charities, since there were better services there than where they were from to help.
On April 18, Chief Ben Bliven made that public. There would be a position request for a social worker who would take over the role Lemirand had played. It turned out, I learned in reporting this story, that Lemirand had already been reassigned, and most of this year there was no homeless liaison officer.
Bliven further said that the homelessness problem had become a crisis in downtown especially in the last month and a half (as temperatures warmed and as mentioned, there no longer was a homeless liaison officer). They heard from downtown business owners and even leadership at the library. The director at the library, who’d lived in Detroit for most of her life and worked in the library system there for a decade, said it was worse than anything she experienced there, Bliven related. (She once told me a very scary carjacking incident prompted her to move here.)
What behaviors are Bliven talking about? They’re sleeping in storefronts, urinating and defecating in public, having public sex in parking garages and aggressively panhandling.
What are the causes of this? Bliven didn’t address this, but law enforcement in the past and recently in response to this story hinted at what Lisa Rasmussen said in the Public Health and Safety Meeting: Wausau is rich in resources for helping homeless folks, and that’s leading a number of agencies to drop their homeless off in Wausau.
The Wausonian confirmed with law enforcement sources that this has happened, but also that a lot of it had more to do with word of mouth. And the recent uptick in activity coincides with the homeless liaison officer no longer being on the beat. (That position will ultimately replaced by a civilian social worker, should it pass through all the necessary approval processes.)
All this is where the controversy sprang from. Up ahead will be an ideological battle with real world consequences.
The Wausonian spoke with downtown business owners, law enforcement, and government officials to get to the bottom of the matter. This is what our publication found.