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Homeless outreach coordinator discusses getting homeless off the streets of Milwaukee

Beth Lappen, the Milwaukee Housing Division’s Downtown homeless outreach coordinator, underneath I-794
CJ Foeckler
Milwaukee Magazine
Beth Lappen, the Milwaukee Housing Division’s Downtown homeless outreach coordinator, underneath I-794.

Last winter, homelessness in Milwaukee reached its lowest number in the last decade. When the count was done last January, there were just 17 people sleeping unsheltered or on the street.

That success is due to a number of programs put in place during the pandemic and the work of the Milwaukee County Housing Division. Their work brings them all around the county, talking to people experiencing homelessness, building relationships, and putting people experiencing homelessness in touch with the services they need.

Beth Lappen is a homeless outreach coordinator for the Housing Division and she was featured in this month’sMilwaukee Magazine.

Lappen describes the current state of homelessness in the city of Milwaukee.

"Oh, I think it's never an easy answer. I think on any given day, that number can change. What it looks like can change. The number that is sort of our official numbers, in that point in time, is just for our benefits of understanding what's going on in our community," Lappen says.

Since Lappen started with the Milwaukee County Housing Division, she's seen a fair bit of change. In particular, her team has grown and collaborative efforts with other housing divisions have improved.

"It just speaks to the tremendous dedication and passion of each person working in the system, whether it's the coordinated entry team, or outreach workers, [or] shelter staff. Everybody is working hard to make sure that we can meet the needs of each individual," Lappen says.

Additionally, Lappen says that the Housing Division system has gotten more creative. She credits the pandemic for making the division resources fit the needs of the homeless.

"So basically, take away as many, if not all, barriers that we can. Whatever it is getting in the way, whatever it is that's preventing someone from accepting services, and finding a way to create that match," Lappen says. "I think the pandemic sort of forced our hands in some ways. We were not traditionally a system that had any sort of access to like hotel rooms for warming spaces."

The Housing Division now offers temporary shelter rooms in hotels, which can make people in need feel like they have privacy. Many people, she notes, have been through the system since they were children and they lack trust in it.

"I am hoping for individuals that have very personal reasons, very specific needs can get some level of assistance, such as a hotel room, even if for a very brief period," says Lappen. "Just to help people get off the street to help them on their path to housing because certainly, it's been a nice thing to be able to offer to people."

Lappen's biggest hope as she looks to the future is getting the community healthy again, specifically regarding the pandemic. Lappen says she recognizes the pandemic has introduced some challenges and changes and that those changes could be long lasting.

"It really is about making sure I'm not making promises I can't keep and being sure to follow through. And when I make a mistake, [because] I'm human, it's about apologizing, calling it out, apologizing, and attempting to move forward," Lappen says. "And making sure I don't make that same mistake again."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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