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How Milwaukee Puts Housing First

The “housing first” philosophy puts the chronically homeless in secure housing as a first step, rather than focusing on behavior or other issues. Here's the difference it has made in Milwaukee County.

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In 2015, the number of chronically homeless people in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, had risen to more than than 1,500 and the challenges that it created — both heart-wrenching and exasperating — were coming to a peak, said Beth Weirick, CEO of Milwaukee’s Downtown Business Improvement District.

The city was experiencing problems familiar to metropolitan areas where business and property owners share public space with homeless residents, including those with mental health and addiction issues, Weirick said. Milwaukee Downtown was hearing concerns about public nuisance behaviors and homelessness, including feedback from convention delegates and conference organizers about the downtown Wisconsin Center, Weirick said. “It felt like ‘Groundhog Day,’ where we kept doing the same things but weren’t getting any positive results from it.”

In search of new ideas, Milwaukee Downtown organized a symposium. “We said, ‘Let’s convene a conversation around this,’” Weirick said. “And instead of just dealing with it from a perspective of looking at [public nuisance behaviors] as criminal activity, let’s look at it from a holistic manner in terms of what we can do to bring some long-term solutions to citizens who may happen to live on the streets in our community.”

At the symposium, participants were introduced to the “housing first” philosophy, which focuses on placing the chronically homeless in secure housing as a first step, rather than focusing on behavior or other issues. Once people are housed, the model then provides a suite of “wraparound” medical, legal, and other services that “help to build trusting relationships, so that individuals are open and willing to receive the help that they need,” Weirick said. “You provide housing first, before you approach somebody and say you have to be drug free, you have to be alcohol free, you have to take a shower, you have to say prayers, or you have to be in by such and such a time.”

The model, which was launched in September 2015, is intensely collaborative, with funding from both private and public sources, and with services provided through a network of 75 city and county human-services organizations, organized as a “Continuum of Care.” Milwaukee Downtown funds positions including a homeless outreach worker and a downtown community prosecutor.

The community prosecutor works hand-in-hand with the outreach worker and looks for alternatives to arresting people and putting them “back into a vicious cycle from the street to jail,” Weirick said. People still are held accountable for criminal behavior, she said, “but we assist them.” The initiative also created a “Community Intervention Team,” that includes representatives from law-enforcement agencies, the county housing department, community-based organizations, businesses, and nonprofits, who talk frankly about problems and solutions, Weirick said. The team includes Dave Larson, Visit Milwaukee’s director of convention services and Meg McKenna, Visit Milwaukee’s development director.

How is it working? Since adopting a “housing first” model three years ago, the homeless population in Milwaukee County has dropped by 40 percent. The program costs Milwaukee County $2 million a year, and has saved the county more than $3.5 million in medical, mental health, and legal costs. Milwaukee County’s goal is to end chronic homelessness by 2020. “The beautiful thing,” Weirick said, “is that we saw significant improvements in terms of getting individuals who are chronically homeless off the streets, while working in a really compassionate, thoughtful manner.

“The commitment to end chronic homelessness really tells a story about Milwaukee that we take care of our people and are a compassionate city,” Weirick continued. “And the other side, with the community prosecutor position, is that we also care about our public realm, and the people who live, work, and visit here and their experience and quality of life.”

Read our cover story, ‘This is Something We Have to Fix.’

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.