Public-private partnership helped drive Milwaukee’s unsheltered homeless population to lowest in the nation

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Years of public-private collaboration culminated in the announcement this week that Milwaukee has the lowest per-capita unsheltered homeless population in the country.

City, county and business leaders unveiled on Thursday the milestone in an ongoing effort to connect homeless individuals with shelter and, ultimately, permanent housing in the community.

Officials counted 17 unsheltered individuals in Milwaukee last year, a 70% reduction from the previous year, and down from 207 individuals in 2016. The overall homeless population in Milwaukee, including sheltered individuals, is nearly half of what it was in 2016, from 1,521 to 817 last year.

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The partnership among county, city, nonprofit and business sectors has been crucial to the region making progress toward its goal of eliminating chronic homelessness, leaders said Thursday during a press conference held at the 3rd Street Market Hall downtown.

“The uniqueness of business leaders stepping up to serve the neediest among us and holding us accountable for this kind of progress really isn’t seen across the country,” Milwaukee County housing administrator James Mathy said.

Responding to the rise in the downtown homeless population in late 2014, the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District #21 convened a group of civic leaders including the county’s Housing Division, Behavioral Health Division, city and district attorneys and police.

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“The intent was really to better understand the state of homelessness in our city and to build stronger relationships to work collaboratively to see if there were more effective ways to really interrupt this cycle. We were experiencing Groundhog Day,” said Beth Weirick, chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Downtown BID.

Those discussions became the precursor to the county adopting in 2015 a “housing first” approach, which prioritizes getting people connected to housing before self-selected services like mental and physical health, substance abuse treatment, education and employment. The housing first model had seen success elsewhere in the country in decreasing the cycle of chronic homelessness.

“The evidence was clear: Our unsheltered citizens who were being helped through the housing first model and had a significant increase in their quality of life,” Weirick said. “We also saw reductions in crisis service utilization, emergency room visits, a reduction in public nuisance citations, and a 98% retention rate of individuals that we were able to get housed through this model.”

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The Downtown BID in 2017 launched its Key to Change, a campaign to raise awareness and funds for a Homeless First endowment fund, moving kits, applications and security deposits, and a full-time downtown homeless outreach coordinator.

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 in 2019.

Homeless outreach is a key component of the county’s strategy, Mathy said. The county deploys outreach teams, in partnership with Community Advocates and Outreach Community Health Centers, throughout the county every weekday to talk with individuals who are chronically homeless and living on the streets. Those individuals are assessed by nurses and social workers and then connected with the services they need. They are placed in apartments and supportive housing developments that provide on-site services using vouchers.

While county data show overall homelessness and unsheltered homelessness rates have both trended downward steadily since 2016, the reality of homelessness in Milwaukee became particularly visible in 2019 as a growing number of tents located under the I-794 overpass at the high-profile downtown intersection of West Clybourn and North 6th streets drew the attention of those passing by on their daily commute. At one point that year, there were approximately 90 individuals living underneath the Marquette Interchange.

Over the past two years, officials have infused federal COVID-related relief and American Rescue Plan Act dollars into the county’s homelessness and housing efforts.

Since its onset, the city has housed over 500 homeless individuals in hotels to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Currently, there are 40 individuals staying in two hotels. The goal is to transition those people to permanent housing, said Mayor Cavalier Johnson.

United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County has also been active in the effort to reduce homelessness and is on track to reach its goal of ending family homelessness in the region by the end of next year, two years ahead of schedule.

“We are able to collaborate with and connect with and compare ourselves against communities across the nation in the different ways we’re addressing some of our toughest issues,” said Krystina Kohler, financial stability portfolio manager for United Way. “And when it comes to housing and homelessness, there is no community in the nation doing it like Milwaukee.”

Mathy applauded the business community’s support of the Housing First initiative.

“The fact that a local business leader was the one hand-in-hand creating this with all of us is just something you’re not going to see across the country,” Mathy said, referring to Weirick.

Leaders noted that Milwaukee’s success could serve as a model nationally for other communities in decreasing chronic homelessness.

Meanwhile, homelessness prevention remains a high priority for local officials.

The county partners with Community Advocates and Hope House on eviction prevention; together the organizations have administered $110 million in federal funds toward those efforts, Mathy said.

The county’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program pays up to 15 months of rent assistance, including up to 12 months of back-rent for qualifying people who experienced financial hardship during the pandemic.

Over 22,000 households were served between the county’s program and a similar program run by the city, Mathy said.

In addition, a new county-run Right to Counsel pilot program now provides no-cost legal representation for residents facing eviction or foreclosure.

National data indicates that individuals who have been evicted are more likely to experience homelessness and extended usage of homeless shelters, more likely to lose their jobs, and more likely to have children who become chronically absent from school. Meanwhile, local data show that 90% of eviction cases are dismissed or delayed when a tenant has legal representation, but only 3% of the 14,000 Milwaukee families facing an eviction in a typical year will have legal representation, according to a news release from County Executive David Crowley’s office.

Crowley acknowledged that the region has made strides in reducing homelessness, but challenges remain related to the county’s housing challenges.

“This is something that we need to celebrate, but we have to continue to accelerate this,” he said.

The 2019 BizTimes Milwaukee Nonprofit Excellence Awards program included a panel discussion on the homelessness issue and community efforts to address it.

Beth Weirick, CEO of the Downtown Milwaukee BID, and Eric Collins-Dyke, of Milwaukee County’s Housing Division, discussed the issue of homelessness and housing insecurity at BizTimes’ 2019 Nonprofit Excellence Awards program.

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