Fond du Lac shelters, organizations fight housing insecurity

Many Fond du Lac households’ incomes don’t match living costs. These organizations are helping fight the housing crisis.

Daphne Lemke
Fond du Lac Reporter

FOND DU LAC – After finishing a rehabilitation program last year, Mike Wydeven of Fond du Lac said he faced judgement from landlords when looking for housing. A few of his options were barely livable, including the first rental he settled in.

“That one was condemned, and one of (the apartments) should have been condemned,” he
said. “I wouldn’t want anybody I know to live in them.”

He later left the condemned unit and stayed in a hotel until he found his current apartment, which he said is much more convenient. He told the management “flat out” his living situation was rough and had to disclose his addiction history, but he proved he could afford the rent with his new job.

Wydeven’s story is not uncommon, though being able to work with his landlord might be. Experts say landlords are often hesitant to accept tenants with addiction history and housing inconsistencies.

That is just one factor in why Fond du Lac, like much of the state and country, is seeing
rising rates of housing insecurity and people experiencing homelessness.

According to ADVOCAP, a community action agency addressing poverty in Fond du Lac, Green Lake and Winnebago counties, the highest areas of need in the area are paying rent in safe affordable housing and paying for gas. Additionally, respondents to a survey from
the organization of community leaders and residents indicated struggles to afford auto repairs and utility bills.

Every three years, the organization conducts a comprehensive needs assessment of its service area, including income, housing, childcare and health. The 2022 report reflects the struggles low-income households, renters, non-profit leaders and people experiencing homelessness are facing in the area.

Leaders from the St. Katharine Drexel Shelter, the Salvation Army of Fond du Lac
Warming Shelter and ADVOCAP, as well as Fond du Lac residents, discussed how the local housing crisis is playing out.

Unemployment is down, but homelessness is rising

Fond du Lac County’s unemployment rate was 2.2% as of November, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That count includes people who are not working, but are available and have been looking for work in the past four weeks; it does not include people that are discouraged from job-seeking for any reason, working part time when they are available full time or haven’t searched for a job but expressed want of one.

According to the needs assessment report, the county’s low unemployment rate may seem positive, but the ideal range is 3% to 5%, because lower numbers could indicate decreased labor participation. This means businesses may be spending more money to attract workers to fill vacancies, which then increases costs for customers.

Though the unemployment rate is low, Fond du Lac’s homeless population has tripled since the St. Katharine Drexel Shelter opened last summer, according to the shelter’s director, Amy Loof.

The shelter has an extensive waiting list, prioritizing people who are sleeping on the streets, as they are the most vulnerable. Even then, the list is at about 140 single clients and 60 families, and Loof said about a quarter of them are estimated to be sleeping on the
streets or in their cars.

A collaboration between St. Vincent de Paul and the Solutions Center, the shelter has room for 36 singles and 15 families for 90 days of programing and resources designed to help those clients get on a path toward permanent housing and self-sufficiency.

A particular struggle in permanent housing, Loof said, is finding single-family homes for rent, as many landlords opted to sell their homes amid inflated values or are working with management companies, some of which aren’t willing to work with the shelter. With the
many hoops needed to jump through, she said clients will often give up.

“There’s a lot of different dynamics that play into what we would consider a housing crisis to be, but right now it is the lack of housing,” she said. “So we try to get creative with the landlords that we do have.”

The programming is individualized, depending on what education and life skills each client could benefit from, and includes a youth empowerment program for kids entering the shelter with their parents in an effort to break generational poverty cycles.

The city also has the Salvation Army of Fond du Lac warming shelter, which is open every
night from November through March, with the opportunity for guests to eat, shower, sleep,
do laundry and talk with trained staff for case management.

Crystal Ognan, the organization’s social services manager, said last year’s shelter season was its highest capacity to date. For this season, staff worked to improve services, based on
client feedback, to best serve everyone that comes through.

Its main goal is to bring people in from the cold, but the shelter also gives people the option of entering the organization’s own slate of programming such as weekly meetings and mentoring opportunities.

“If we’re able to provide these services, we’re able to help build people from the inside out,” Ognan said. “But we thrive on accountability, so we need the participants to meet us partway and put in that effort as well.”

With the bitter cold temperatures and waves of snow storms that crossed Fond du Lac this winter, the warming shelter sometimes scrambles to continue meeting necessary needs. When temperatures reached lows in the minus-20 to minus-30 range at the end of 2022,
the shelter worked with Comfort Inn near the Fondy Food Pantry to shelter people during the day, in response to other businesses and organizations such as the library — which otherwise would have provided shelter — closing.

For both shelters, mental illness and addiction come into play for the clients involved,
whether causing or caused by experiencing homelessness. The behavior involved can be
unsafe for clients and staff, Ognan said, and Loof added that many landlords don’t want to deal particularly with addiction, especially if they’ve had previous bad experience with renters.

“I see both sides of it, but they’re still people, and they still deserve to be housed,” Loof said. “They still deserve to be treated with some dignity.”

At the local shelters, programming and security work to keep clients and staff safe while also supporting those going through or recovering from addiction and mental illness.

For example, as a low-barrier shelter, there aren’t many requirements to allow someone
inside, apart from sex offender screenings and certain background checks, but the rules enforced every night — including bans on weapons, violence and disrespect of staff — are meant to help everyone involved.

“People have said that those rules helped them because they wouldn’t have anywhere else
to go if they continued to act out,” Ognan said. “So it’s helping them recognize that they can’t drink a huge amount before they come into the shelter at night because otherwise their safety and their security is at risk.”

The warming shelter has also had success collaborating with the Salvation Army Adult
Rehabilitation Center in Milwaukee to provide free six-month rehab for eligible clients.

Renters face inflation, lack of availability for housing that matches their income

For those looking for housing within a budget, the current housing market is also
frightening due to a number of factors that came up at the same time as — but not
necessarily because of — the pandemic, ADVOCAP Homeless Prevention Services Director Lu Scheer said.

The rental moratorium from September 2020 to August 2021 — which prevented landlords from evicting tenants for not paying rent — interrupted the natural flow of people moving in and out of units. Many owners sold homes they otherwise would have rented out, whether to homeowners or rental companies, contributing to a frustrating lack of availability in someone’s price range, Scheer said.

Companies and investors that buy units are also often left in debt from those investments,
and then raise rent to pay off loans, she said. Many will even require no evictions, a clean
background check and proof that the renter’s income is three times bigger than the rent before renting out a space.

“We’re seeing a large group of people at a fixed income who’d been renting their properties
for 20 years from ‘the guy downstairs’ or (a similar situation), and now this is happening,” Scheer said. “There’s a lot of people who are just suffering with housing insecurity.”

According to the needs assessment report, the county’s vacancy rate for homes is very low, and though the vacancy rate for rental units seems healthy, the rental rates are
unaffordable to low-income individuals.

Housing is considered affordable if a household pays less than 30% of its income on
housing costs, including rent or mortgage and utilities, such as water, electricity and gas,
according to the report.

The reported said those paying more than that are considered cost burdened, and those
with higher cost burdens are more likely to struggle with affording things like groceries,
bills, transportation and medical care. It also shows 39% of renters and 27% of
homeowners throughout the county are cost-burdened.

As of 2021, 60% of renters and 43% of homeowners in the city of Fond du Lac that make
between $20,000 and $34,999 in household income are cost-burdened, according to the
city’s 2021 Housing Affordability Report. For those whose household income is less than $20,000, the number for both renters and homeowners goes up to 88%.

Amanda Courtemanche bought her house in 2020, and now, she said, her mortgage and
utilities add up to about 42% of her income. In the past few years, gas, heat and electricity
have gone from under $100 a month to almost $200. One thing she wishes she could
afford more comfortably is home repairs.

“Honestly, I could put more money towards the renovations and different items that need
to be fixed in the house,” she said.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development tracks rentals’ Fair Market Rent (FMR), which is the monthly amount of rent a property is likely to receive in its area, based on individual housing markets. This is used to determine payments for housing assistance programs and if a low-income person is able to receive assistance, limiting them to units priced at FMR level.

As of October, the report said the FMR in Fond du Lac is $720 for a one-bedroom unit and $924 for a two-bedroom.

The median rent in the county as of September 2022 is $649 for one-bedroom rental and
$995 for two-bedroom, not including utilities. With half of rental units priced above these
numbers and half below, more than half of two-bedroom rentals in the county are
considered unaffordable even before other housing costs are added in.

On top of rent, utility costs are also rising, and resources to build new housing are expensive and slow to come by.

“If some magic housing fairy came and gave me money to build a unit where I could then
afford to charge an affordable rent, I would still have to find a developer and a builder, and
I would have to find materials,” Scheer said.

These Fond du Lac organizations offer resources to those needing assistance

ADVOCAP has several programs for affordable housing, homeowner assistance and homeless prevention.

From February 2021 through this January, the organization administered the Wisconsin
Emergency Rental Assistance program to help low-income households under financial
hardship and housing insecurity with rental and utility assistance and related household expenses, funded by the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

As of Jan. 31, however, applications have closed due to low funds, but the state set aside funding to allow the organization to help current clients transition out of the program through coaching services on goal setting, budgeting, landlord mediation and referrals to other programs, according to a press release from ADVOCAP.

The Fond du Lac Housing Authority serves the city and county to provide safe, sanitary
and affordable housing for low-income individuals.

The Solutions Center, in addition to contributing to the St. Katharine Drexel Shelter, offers several services to people experiencing domestic abuse and homelessness, including
shelter, support and resources.

The Fond du Lac Morning Rotary used its annual Wine Around the World fundraiser this year to benefit homeless students and their families in the Fond du Lac School District, as more than 100 students in the district are currently homeless, according to the rotary’s homeless grant coordinator Linda Tack.

The community also has a number of food pantries, including Broken Bread Food
Pantry through Cathedral Church of Saint Paul, Ruby’s Pop-up Pantry through Grace
Christian Church and Lighthouse Christian Church’s food pantry, in addition to the
Salvation Army of Fond du Lac’s pantry and the Fondy Food Pantry, the last of which
recently reopened its walk-in pantry on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Many of these pantries, as well as the Salvation Army, Solutions Center and the St.
Katharine Drexel Shelter, are welcoming donations and looking for volunteers to help their cause.

Loof said with the stigma that comes along with the homeless population, people may have
automatic thoughts around it that could be proven wrong through volunteering and
interacting with people.

“The homeless population is made up of a multitude of people that come from different walks of life,” she said. “(If people) get to know the people that are here (and) work with them in the shelter, they will probably get a different perspective of what homelessness actually looks like.”