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With Increased Funding During The Pandemic, Milwaukee County Has Seen A Drastic Decrease In Homelessness

Tent encampment in downtown Milwaukee
Lauren Sigfusson
A tent encampment in downtown Milwaukee in November 2018. Data from January 2021 saw just 17 people living unsheltered in Milwaukee County.

Over the last year, Milwaukee has had a record decline in the number of people who are unhoused and living on the street. The decline is bucking the national trend, which saw homelessness rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Point in Time count this January found there were just 17 people living unsheltered in Milwaukee County.

Advocates say the decline is thanks to greater collaboration among groups fighting homelessness and measures put in place during the pandemic, which they’d like to see continue. Funding from the CARES Act and the Emergency Solutions Grant from the federal government gave Milwaukee more funding and more choices in how to care for people experiencing homelessness. Nancy Esteves is the homeless management information system manager at the Institute for Community Alliances. She explains who is included in the Point in Time count.

“In order to be counted for the Point in Time count, you have to have been outside in a place not meant for human habitation, in an emergency shelter or transitional housing,” she says. “It’s important to note that folks doubled up, or the terminology that’s been tossed around is couch surfing, those individuals are not counted, because are not — they are experiencing homelessness but not in an unsheltered way.”

Esteves says the data is important to help understand where support needs to be directed and to make sure that the needs of communities are being met.

Eric Collins-Dyke is the assistant administrator of supportive housing and homeless services for Milwaukee County. He says for any person living outside, there needs to be an increase in resources to get them to a safer and more stable living situation. Collins-Dyke says the drastic investment in homelessness services during the pandemic has been one bright spot through a dark time.

“If there’s any silver lining during COVID, it was that we got all of these resources, we came together as an outreach community, we had this dignified resource in the hotels and so I’m just hopeful that we can just continue to push for more of those,” he says.

While shelter resources like hotel rooms are crucial, Esteves says further funds need to be put into preventing people from becoming homeless. She wants to make sure that people are getting resources to keep them in their current living situation.

“We consider it a success if we can keep individuals, families in their stable housing as long as they’re safe, continue to keep them housed. I think that that’s an incredible important piece,” she says.

Esteves says keeping people in their homes isn’t just about covering the costs of shelter, but also providing physical health care, mental health services and other case management. She says along with keeping people from becoming homeless, it’s important to break cycles of homelessness so that currently unhoused people don’t find themselves unhoused in the future.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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