Community leaders working to address homelessness, housing instability

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Metro Milwaukee’s homelessness challenges became increasingly visible this year as a growing number of tents located under the I-794 overpass at the intersection of West Clybourn and North 6th streets drew the attention of community and city leaders and those passing by on their daily commute.

“I think a lot of what we’re seeing is the bubble bursting in terms of those living in entrenched poverty, and the inflow into our homeless services system is rapidly increasing,” said Eric Collins-Dyke, homeless outreach services manager for the Milwaukee County Housing Division. “Historically, these individuals have been able to self-resolve their homelessness, but what we’re seeing now is individuals coming into the homeless system to access needed resources. We’ve seen a heavy increase in individuals that were precariously housed coming to the encampment.”

What many may not see, however, is representatives from the homeless outreach community who are at the site every day working to connect individuals with housing plans and services, he said.

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“Often times, the optics of a situation don’t correlate with the work being done behind the scenes. It’s understandable that community members might think that things aren’t happening when they continue to see tents there every day, but to be sure, there is a lot of work going into this daily,” Collins-Dyke said.

As government and nonprofit organizations work to connect those experiencing homelessness with sustainable housing, leaders say the encampment highlights an issue that affects not only those living outside, but also those facing housing instability throughout the community.

“It’s important to acknowledge the number of homeless people living out in the open in downtown Milwaukee,” said Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact for United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County. “Many are passing those tents every day. And while we’re concerned about what’s happening and working with partners in the county on solutions, the one silver lining I can say is people cannot ignore that problem when they see it every day. It’s not hidden; it’s right here. And it’s important to confront your own thoughts and feelings about that issue.”

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The Cathedral Center offers a flexible housing program at Friendship House of Milwaukee.
The Cathedral Center offers a flexible housing program at Friendship House of Milwaukee.

United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County announced in August it will target the issue of homelessness over the next five years, with the goal of ending family homelessness in the region by 2025. Family homelessness is defined as a single adult or pair of adults who have at least one child under the age of 18.

“When we thought about who we are as a funder, and what our community needs, soon we landed on housing,” Angresano said. “Everything we talked about came back to housing stability and safety and having a sense of place. When we considered all we could fund first, we believe very strongly that if you can solve the challenge of family homelessness, many other issues will be positively impacted, such as employment, educational outcomes and health outcomes.”

While many are aware homelessness exists in Milwaukee, Angresano said there is less awareness of its prevalence throughout the entire four-county region that United Way supports, which encompasses Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington counties.

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For families experiencing homelessness, housing instability takes many different forms, including couch surfing, living with too many people in one home, sleeping in cars or living in tents on campgrounds.

The initiative, called “Safe & Stable Homes: Ending Family Homelessness,” will involve United Way continuing to fund warming room and emergency shelters, while also expanding its focus to homelessness prevention for families.

“We’ll focus more than ever on preventing homelessness in the first place,” Angresano said, including offering assistance to families who experience unexpected financial circumstances that cause them to come up short on rent.

“For so many families, if someone had intervened when they were just a few dollars short that particular month or when something threw them off and there’s a domino effect and they can’t get back on top. What if we intervened sooner so the eviction didn’t happen?” Angresano said, noting that it’s much easier to help someone maintain housing than re-housing them after an eviction.

United Way is using a “collective impact” model to tackle the issue of family homelessness, making targeted investments in programs and organizations to move the needle on the issue.

The tent encampment located under the I-794 overpass at the intersection of West Clybourn and North 6th Street.
The tent encampment located under the I-794 overpass at the intersection of West Clybourn and North 6th Street.

The organization is drawing on its previous success in teen pregnancy prevention. In 2008, the organization set a goal of reducing teen birth rates in Milwaukee by 46% by 2015, which was considered an ambitious target at the time. By 2013, that goal had been surpassed and the United Way set out to further reduce that rate by 50% by 2023.

The success of the initiative has been attributed to an “all-hands-on-deck” community response to the issue, including the involvement of the business community, government, education, the medical field, faith leaders, law enforcement and other nonprofits.

Angresano said a similar response will be needed to end family homelessness.

This fall the Wisconsin Department of Transportation forced the approximately 90 individuals living underneath the Marquette Interchange to vacate the premises by the end of October to make way for a green infrastructure project. In response, the United Way has pledged to give $75,000 to assist in their transition.

“While United Way has launched an initiative to end family homelessness by 2025, we could not ignore the people currently experiencing homelessness living outside in tents,” Angresano said. “In partnership with Milwaukee County’s Housing Division, we will support the dignified and temporary housing of up to 90 adults, all of whom will be offered voluntary case management and have an opportunity to be assessed for housing.”

Milwaukee County, meanwhile, is now five years into its Housing First initiative, a model based on the idea that it is imperative for an individual to secure safe and stable housing first, rather than requiring their sobriety, employment or other requirements before they can attain housing.

“What we were seeing with those kinds of programs is it was taking a number of years to get individuals into housing due to those stringent requirements,” Collins-Dyke said. “So Housing First really flips that on its head and it gets somebody indoors first and then once they’re indoors we explore all their needs from a service standpoint, mental health, medical, employment (and) legal.”

At the outset, the county set a goal of housing every chronically homeless individual in the county within three years, with a focus on those who live on the streets and stay in Family Homeless Shelters.

Since its launch, the initiative has helped place more than 700 chronically homeless individuals in permanent housing and reduced the overall rate of homelessness in the county by 45%.

“A big part of Housing First is the services,” Collins-Dyke said, noting that many of the people served by the county experience high-acuity mental health issues. “We provide flexible case management services for everyone … it’s more of a holistic approach, it’s client-centered.”

The Housing First case management services are funded via tax levy.

In his most recent budget, Milwaukee County executive Chris Abele has proposed expanding the county Housing Division’s efforts to prevent eviction and homelessness for an additional 150 families per year.

The budget also proposes spending an additional $250,000 in prevention by expanding connections to services with the IMPACT 211 hotline, providing funding for individuals experiencing homelessness to get back on their feet and adding a Prevention Navigator position.

Collins-Dyke stressed that partnering with area nonprofits, including those that are entrenched in housing-related services, such as St. Benedict the Moor’s, is key to providing community services. For example, the county provides more than $700,000 of tax levy to emergency shelters.

“In Milwaukee, our continuum of care is made up of a number of nonprofits,” he said. “So it’s really nice that we have partners who we can go to when we create new initiatives … We couldn’t do it without them.”

For-profit entities, too, have stepped up to meet community needs. During last winter’s polar vortex, Milwaukee-based We Energies gave $100,000 to allow Milwaukee’s warming centers to serve more homeless individuals when temperatures dipped to 20 degrees and below.

As temperatures begin to drop again this year, county officials and homeless advocates are focused on addressing the downtown encampment.

“As we get closer to colder weather, we are putting plans in place to get everyone indoors and then on to permanent housing,” Collins-Dyke said. “We firmly believe that housing is a human right, and we will continue to do everything we can to make that the core focus of our advocacy and service provision.”

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