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Milwaukee County's Housing First Initiative, One Year In

Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Point in Time Homeless Count, 2015. A homeless outreach volunteer with Milwaukee County Housing picks up two homeless people living off 35th Street and offers them food, hot beverages and a ride to a warming room with showers.

This month, Milwaukee County received a $2.4 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to help end chronic homelessness. The money will be doled out over the next three years and is intended to benefit the county’s Housing First Initiative, which was launched last summer. The initiative focuses on "chronically homeless" people, defined as someone who has been homeless for at least a year, or has had four episodes of homelessness in the last three years. They also have some kind of disability, which makes it more difficult to access services.  

In just one year the program has housed at least half of Milwaukee’s chronically homeless population - and one-hundred percent of participants have kept their leases. To some, this tactic seems a little backward. For years, many municipalities have worked on making their homeless population "housing ready." Organizations would help someone by getting them medical attention and other services, while they were still living on the street.

Emily Kenney, the Coordinated Entry Program Coordinator for IMPACT, says this approach puts a lot of strain on a homeless person. "Being able to concentrate on something other than just your basic need of safety allows you to progress and do other things with your life," she says. 

The housing first model is based on a case study of a man named Murray Barr, also known as "Million-Dollar Murray." A homeless man living in Reno, this study found that managing his needs was costing more than a million dollars every year. Emergency room visits, jail stays, and other services cost much more than rent. 

"When we think about housing and paying somebody's rent, and having them stay somewhere for free while they're working on all of the issues and trying to get an income and trying to get treatment, we think that that would be really expensive," says Kenney. "But in fact, it's much cheaper to house somebody than to keep them on the street and try to wrap services around them that way." 

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.