CEO Mike Williams shares how Milwaukee's Guest House is 'more than shelter'
Every day in Milwaukee, 900-1,200 people need emergency shelter. For almost 40 years, the Guest House in the King Park neighborhood has been working with community members facing homelessness and housing instability.
The Guest House is more than a shelter — it provides clinical and recovery services, case management, housing, and wrap-around coordinated care services to help ensure their clients' future success. Overall, the Guest House focuses on achieving a vision of erasing homelessness in Milwaukee.
Mike Williams is the Guest House president and CEO. He shares what makes the Guest House unique and highlights some of the main issues contributing to the city's homelessness and housing instability.
"When you combine trauma that sometimes is systemic, and it's persistent — when you combine that with opportunities that aren't always available, and you combine that with mental health and drug and alcohol issues, it can be really insurmountable for a population," says Williams.
When someone is admitted to the Guest House, Williams says the first steps are welcoming them and treating them with dignity and respect. Then, the Guest House gets to work on providing them with a good meal, clothing and immediately starting a case management process.
So far, 8,000 hours have been donated to Guest House by 2,500 volunteers and community members supporting their program. Over 1,229 individuals and families have received service from the shelter since they've opened.
"Our mission is to end homelessness, but to do it in a way that is respectful to all of our guests and all of our clients, and they're just that. They're guests here," notes Williams.
The case management component sets the Guest House apart from other homeless aid organizations according to Williams. It's also one of the things about their work that makes him proud. Case managers work with guests in a series of programs like emergency shelter, interim housing, and permanent supportive housing.
Williams also notes that Guest House has a partnership with Housing and Urban Development in which the collaboration provides 450-500 houses around Milwaukee County.
"We're more than shelter and we stand on that. We believe that we are more than shelter because we have picked dedicated case managers to work with all of our guests through all of our programs," says Williams.
A key part in ensuring that the Guest House provides a sense of dignity and purpose to its guests is having staff members who have also experienced homelessness themselves according to Williams.
He uses himself as an example, recounting how he experienced homelessness briefly as a child. Although he doesn't remember it, he adds that other members of his family have also experienced homelessness. Williams' own and the other staff's experiences directly shape they they approach the work in a non-judgmental manner.
"The great question we ask is not, 'What's wrong with you? But, 'What happened to you?'"
"And when we approach it from that vantage point, that you're not defective, we're not judging your decisions. We're here to help you. How do we collaborate?" explains Williams.
The pandemic has been extremely difficult for homeless people, but the Guest House has never had to close. Although Williams notes the pandemic has certainly impacted the Guest House's operational capacity, which is currently at 60%.
"All of our scattered sites are full. So 450 to 500 sites," he adds. "And what we've noticed is by necessity, people are staying longer in each phase of our program."
Williams became Guest House's first president and CEO in August of 2021. He says experiencing homelessness and having a passion for personally helping people has led him to do the work he's doing now.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is that we have staff that has been here 15 plus years. They are committed to trying to end homelessness in Milwaukee. So that's how I landed here, and I'm hoping to be here 10 to 15 years," says Williams.