“Housing First” reduced homelessness in Milwaukee. Can this work statewide?

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As Wisconsin faces affordable housing shortage, campaigning Evers directs $200 million in federal funds to the problem

BY NATHAN DENZIN, The Badger Project

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated homelessness in Wisconsin, with the state now facing a deficit of more than 120,000 affordable housing units and more 4,500 people homelessness on any given night, according to the most recent data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

However, Milwaukee County has the lowest homeless population per capita in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). announced in March. It is through a set of “housing first” policies that the city has implemented to permanently house as many people as possible before they find jobs or deal with addiction or mental health issues. , said James Mathy, administrator of the Milwaukee County Housing Division. .

These policies are now being slowly adopted across Wisconsin, as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, seeking re-election this year, announced in March about $210 million in grants to address homelessness in the state. The Neighborhood Investment Fund comes from the huge sums the state received from the nearly $2 trillion federal stimulus from Democrats starting in 2021, called the US bailout. The fund is intended to help cities address a variety of issues, with the majority of grants creating affordable housing and supporting people struggling with homelessness, depending on the state.

The City and County of Milwaukee is expected to receive a total of $25 million from the fund, depending on the state. Milwaukee County will receive two grants totaling just over $10 million. More than $7 million will go toward building 120 single-family homes for people of color and will focus on affordable homeownership, Mathy said.

Another $3 million will go toward acquiring and rehabilitating a building on the south side of town that contains a community food pantry and a transitional housing program, according to Mathy. The city of Milwaukee is set to receive $15 million for similar projects.

Racine, which will receive $15 million, and Juneau, which has a population of about 2,600, will receive $10 million. The Ho-Chunk Nation will receive nearly $12 million for this same issue at Black River Falls. Viroqua, which has a population of about 4,500, will receive $6 million.

The cities of Ashwaubenon, Eau Claire, Fond Du Lac, Lancaster, Menomonie, Oshkosh and Wausau will all receive approximately $2 million to $5 million.

This funding will be crucial as Wisconsin’s homeless population grows in all regions of the state, said Michael Basford, director of the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessnessa state agency whose goal is to end homelessness.

“It’s really a universal problem across the state — everywhere I’ve gone to see it in person, or virtually over the past three years, everyone tells me the same thing,” Basford said. “Access to affordable housing, especially for low-income people, is the biggest barrier for people experiencing homelessness.

Home prices across the state have doubled since 2012 and have risen nearly $100,000 on average over the past 5 years, according to the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason housing prices are rising statewide, Basford said, but in Madison the costs could be driven by the growth of the data industry. On the east and west sides of the state, he speculated, the economies of Milwaukee and the Twin Cities could drive people away from their jobs.

A huge jump in material prices also boosted the housing market. The prices of building materials have increased 33% since the start of the pandemicaccording to the National Association of Home Builders.

In the Milwaukee metro area, a tenant is expected to make approximately $19 per hour to afford a mid-priced one-bedroom apartment for 40 hours of work, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization aimed at reducing homelessness for low-income people. In Madison, that figure tops $23 an hour, according to the agency. The state minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

“If I were the Czar of Wisconsin and could make budget decisions, I would create a program where I would simply cut checks from whatever was available in the budget for [affordable housing]”, Basford said. “But politically it’s not a viable option.”

Current remedies for creating affordable housing include Social housing tax credit (LIHTC), which provides grants to private companies to build affordable housing.

“Relying on the LIHTC is something that is done most often because it is something that is available right now,” Basford said.

More than 900 affordable units will be built statewide through the Neighborhood Investment Grant, Basford said, but that’s a far cry from the 120,000 units he says Wisconsin needs.

“That number doesn’t mean you have 120,000 homeless every night, but it does mean thousands of households are one broken arm away or one COVID diagnosis away from not being able to pay the bills,” Basford said, referring to emergencies that prevent people from working. “There will always be a very significant need for more affordable housing, and that is going to be very heavy.”

Milwaukee Housing First Program

“Housing First” policies were first adopted in Milwaukee in 2015 when a group of care partners, city leaders and politicians came together to create a system that HUD says has helped the city to achieve the lowest homeless population per capita in America.

“A lot of big institutions have signed on to this plan,” Mathy said. “Having our full focus on permanently ending cycles of homelessness, instead of just being reactive, is what made these numbers possible.”

In addition to using tax credits to create affordable housing, social workers in downtown Milwaukee conduct street outreach five days a week, where they work with homeless people to place them directly in permanent accommodation.

Data from the Milwaukee County Housing Division shows a 92% reduction in the homeless population on the streets since the adoption of “housing first” policies in 2015, and a 53% reduction in the temporarily housed homeless population.

The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, Milwaukee Police Department, and Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office are all partners in the Housing Division – which can be the difference between a homeless person being forcibly evicted. ‘a tent city or getting permanent housing,’ Mathy said. .

“We want to make sure people aren’t just kicked out of the encampments,” Mathy said. “The idea of ​​’Housing First’ is to decriminalize homelessness and ensure that people are placed in permanent housing.”

Mathy says 80% of homeless households served in Milwaukee County are black. This Milwaukee demographic has the highest poverty rate of any demographic group, according to the US census.

“Achieving major reductions in homelessness is entirely possible, if everyone works together and follows the same philosophy,” Mathy said. “Often it doesn’t require incredibly large financial investments. A lot is just coordination and building a good public-private partnership.

Inspired by Houston, Texas

Many of the policies and practices implemented by Milwaukee were first successful in Houston, a city HUD named a “priority community” in 2012.

An audit of the city’s homeless resources found the system to be disjointed, with duplicate services and people being transferred instead of being directed to housing, according to Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations. to the Houston/Harris County Homeless Coalition.

Like Milwaukee three years later, Houston’s various organizations first met to agree on a homelessness strategy. Leaders decided to pursue “housing first” policies that prioritized moving people to permanent housing as quickly as possible. The city has also set up a facility to recruit and retain landlords and properties for the program.

The latest homeless count found just over 3,000 homeless people in Houston, a third of what there were in 2011.

“It can be tempting to want to respond to political pressure, or community pressure to immediately get rid of this visible homelessness, but that’s just a band-aid,” Rausch said. “It’s so expensive to temporarily house people. Getting it right might take a little longer, but in the end, you’ve definitely resolved the situation instead of pushing them into temporary shelters.

While there was pitifulEverything about the Houston system – including dirty apartments, listless landlords and potentially long waits to be housed – has a 90% success rate in keeping people housed after 2 years or a positive transition to more permanent housing , Rausch said.

“We dedicate the majority of our funding to permanent housing because we believe the only way to permanently end someone’s homelessness is to provide them with housing and support services, period,” Rausch said. .

The Badger Project is a non-profit, nonpartisan journalism organization supported by the citizens of Wisconsin.

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