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A Solution for Milwaukee’s Chronically Homeless? Permanent Housing

Starting Wednesday, Milwaukee will begin a new strategy to end chronic homelessness. The program is called Housing First. 

It simply offers chronically homeless people a place to live. The federal government defines them as individuals who’ve gone without housing for a year straight, or multiple times over three years. Milwaukee has counted about 200 such people.

The city and county will work to move people into permanent housing first, and then help them begin to confront the root causes of why they were chronically homeless.

"We can't force people to accept (drug and alcohol treatment and other services)," Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele says. "The nice thing with the permanent housing model is the percentage of people who turn down services, when the first thing they are offered is permanent housing,..is a lot less because it is independent and allows people to take services on their terms."

WUWM's LaToya Dennis went out with a Milwaukee County homeless outreach team who were conducting wellness checks.

It’s a little past eight in the morning when I meet Perry outside a home on Milwaukee’s northwest side. He leads me up the driveway and around to the back of the garage where he opens the door.

This is his house.

The garage belongs to an elderly couple. Perry says he sometimes cuts their grass or cleans their gutters and in exchange, they allow him to sleep here a couple times a week. He’s confined to one parking spot because a gold four-door car occupies the other, right next to his bed.

Perry has a small television and sleeps on an old hospital bed mattress on the floor.

When he’s not staying here, he’s downtown.

“Everything is and everyone I know is downtown by Wisconsin (Avenue). So I eat down there and I’ll usually hangout with some friends and usually we’ll kick it underneath a bridge, sleep under there or something,” Perry says.

At age 53, Perry has a few deep wrinkles around his eyes and is missing his bottom teeth, but overall, he looks younger than you might expect, for someone who’s lived on the streets for three years.

Perry says he and his partner were addicts, and leaving that relationship is how he ended up on the streets.

“I’m on a methadone program now trying to get my life together so I can see my kid. She’s got to have one good parent. And like I say, I refuse to die an addict you know?” Perry says.

Perry is typical of people who are chronically homeless – they have some sort of disability, or alcohol or drug dependency. Outreach efforts often tie together a place to stay with treatment. But now, the city of Milwaukee and the county will try a housing first approach. It means giving people a place to live with no strings attached - people are not required to take part in treatment or other services.

“It’s the utopian way of doing this, you know,” Collins-Dyke says.

That’s Eric Collins-Dyke, a community intervention specialist for Milwaukee County. He says the hope is that after chronically homeless people have a permanent place to live, they’ll be willing to address their other issues.

Collins-Dyke starts his day at around 5:30 a.m. driving around the community making contact with homeless people before they wake and move for the day. He’s been telling them about the new housing first model.

“We had a guy who’s been, who’s been in an encampment in the woods for years who finally said to me a couple of weeks ago that he wants to talk to me about housing in the fall. That’s pretty cool to me,” Collins-Dyke says.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan says that since 2010, the housing first program has noted a 21% decline in the number of chronically homeless people in the participating communities.

Collins-Dyke says that while it’s great to hand out sandwiches and sleeping bags to homeless people hoping to eventually coax them off the street, it’ll be much better to offer them immediate housing.

Both Milwaukee County and the city will cover the $1.8 million the program is expected to cost annually by reallocating money received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan says that since 2010, the housing first program has noted a 21 percent decline in the number of chronically homeless people in the participating communities. "The whole concept behind Housing First is built on the recognition to layer conditions on these persons just doesn't work," he says.

“The data is there that providing them housing first is much more effective way of getting them off the streets where not only are they costing the system more, tragically they are dying on the street,” Sullivan says.

Back on Milwaukee’s northwest side, Perry, the man who occasionally lives in a garage, says he looks forward to the day when he has a permanent place to stay.

“Just to have something I can say is my own. It’s been so long since I got to be able to do that,” Perry says.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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