Home Madison “Sin is the root cause” of homelessness, Dane County Supervisor says

“Sin is the root cause” of homelessness, Dane County Supervisor says


A Dane County Supervisor raised eyebrows and prompted some pushback by saying during debate over funding for a homeless shelter that “sin is the root cause” of homelessness – a comment fellow supervisors called a “dog whistle” and victim-blaming.

At the April 4 meeting of the Dane County Board, Jeff Weigand, who represents the village of Marshall and surrounding areas, was the sole no vote on a resolution to authorize a grant of $231,000 to Porchlight, a nonprofit organization that provides services to homeless people, to operate its emergency men’s shelter. 

In speaking on why he decided to vote no, Weigand said he supports nonprofit organizations providing services to people in need, but “funding of this problem is not going to fix the root cause … for every dollar that we invest in providing someone a temporary place to sleep, we should be investing an equal amount or putting an equal amount of energy towards finding solutions towards the root cause.”

In response, Supervisor Anthony Gray said it “seems reasonable” to address the root cause of homelessness, but asked Weigand what he thought that root cause was.

“Sin is the root cause,” Weigand said. “When God created this world, there was no sin, he created a perfect world, man ruined that by sinning, and we’ve seen the depravity and the decline of our world ever since then. So when we talk about the root cause, if you really want to go back to why we have mental health issues, to why we have greed, to why we have people being mean to other people, it’s sin. And until we address that issue, we’re going to continue to see this issue of homelessness and a whole slate of other issues in our society.”

In an interview Monday, Weigand clarified that at the meeting he was referring broadly to the sinfulness of the entire human race, which fundamentalists believe stems from Adam and Eve being disobedient to God in the Garden of Eden.

But, he said, he also believes that “sometimes that still manifests itself in individual people continuing to make bad decisions that lead to their homelessness. That’s not all the time. That’s a portion of the time. But what I was trying to get at is … it’s mankind’s fallen state. And until we address that issue, we’re going to continue to see not just homelessness, we’re going to continue to see all kinds of bad behavior.”

He said addressing the “root cause” will require both acknowledgment and accountability.

“When we look at the root cause of problems, we have to be realistic about what will actually solve the problem,” he said. “And really, nothing’s gonna solve our problems until we acknowledge and admit that we are a fallen mankind.”

But at the individual level, Weigand said he believes county-funded programs should come with accountability.

“What it looks like from a county funding perspective is to invest in initiatives that will hold people accountable to God’s standards …You can hold someone accountable while also meeting their needs,” he said. “And part of holding someone accountable is addressing their sin issues, if they have any. Not everyone is living in a situation that they created through their own sin, but some people are … If you are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, let’s find you that assistance, let’s get you that physical need. Let’s also make sure that you’re accountable and not continuing to go down that path anymore.”

He cited his own church, which he said offers food, clothing and housing assistance as well as mentorship and counseling to those in need. He declined to name the church.

“That’s the model that I think works the best because the church individuals, people one on one, can determine the difference between someone that wants to continue to make poor decisions, and someone that doesn’t, someone that truly wants to turn their life around,” he said.

He said no one the church helps has to believe in God, but does have to attend a Bible study.

“If we’re going to physically give you help, we’re going to do a Bible study with you,” he said. “You don’t have to believe it, you can sit there and and check the box. But we are going to because we believe that that’s the true solution. We’re also not going to turn someone away if they have a physical need. If you have a physical need, come on in. We just ask you sit through this Bible study. If you don’t want to listen, that’s fine.”

Anthony Gray
(Photo by Hedi Lamarr Photography)

Gray said he felt compelled to ask exactly what Weigand meant by “root causes” after hearing that phrase repeatedly in Weigand’s remarks.

“It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth time that it dawned on me what he was actually saying,” Gray said in an interview Monday. “Once I figured it out, I realized how vile and disgusting it was to blame homelessness on the unhoused … I knew that if I opened the door for him … he would stop talking in dog whistles and speak truth.”

Gray, who called himself “a practicing Episcopalian,” said he disagrees with Weigand’s view of both sin and the causes of homelessness.

“The reason people are homeless is because they don’t have homes,” he said. “The reason people have mental illness is because they’re sick … blaming the victim is the coward’s way out.”

Supervisor Dana Pellebon, who is running for County Executive, echoed Gray’s sentiment.

“How do you tell a person who is going through a domestic violence incident who no longer has a home that the root cause of their homelessness is sin? How do you do that?” Pellebon said in an interview Monday. “How do you say to someone with a mental illness, who cannot be housed because their mental illness doesn’t allow them to get that stability that if only they were without sin …”

Both Gray and Pellebon also expressed First Amendment concerns with Weigand’s remarks.

“I think that there should be a separation of church and state, and that sending government money as a general rule to faith based institutions can be tricky,” Gray said, noting that some faith-based nonprofit organizations do provide excellent service within the confines of the law. 

“I’m not against churches,” he said. “I’m against ignorance.”

Dana Pellebon
(Photo by M.O.D. Photography)

“There is a reason why there is a separation of church and state,” Pellebon said. “Not everybody believes the same things or interprets even the Bible in the same manner.”

Pellebon, a member of the Dane County Board’s Black Caucus, said she saw a racial element in Weigand’s statements.

“We know (homelessness) disproportionately affects Black people,” she said. “If he really wants to talk about the root causes, if he wants to talk about sin, then he needs to go back in history and look at the root causes of how it is that Black folks are treated and the sins that were perpetrated against us.”