Milwaukee’s Housing First Program Stands Out, But Much More Is Needed

    Unlike many cities in the United States, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has managed to keep its rate of homelessness relatively low. For years, people there have benefited from a “housing first” approach—enabling them to be housed without first meeting requirements like abstinence from drugs or having a job. But Milwaukee nonetheless faces major challenges amid the national crisis; its unhoused population is growing, and shelters aren’t keeping up.

    Milwaukee County, the largest in Wisconsin, launched its Housing First program in 2015. According to the county website:

    “The Milwaukee County Housing First philosophy provides housing to those most in need without pre-condition. This is because, we have found, the most vulnerable in our community can only solve one life-changing problem at a time. When you are living outside, without a roof over your head or knowing where your next meal will come from, that instantly becomes your most important problem.”

    By 2021, Milwaukee County officially had the lowest per capita rate of unsheltered people of any county in the nation, with 17 people recorded. The county retained that position in 2022. The county website states that the Housing First program has coincided with significant decreases in the overall unhoused population, too—as well as saving the county $3.5 million each year.

    But the reality on Milwaukee’s streets is nothing like a simple good news story, according to Eva Welch. Along with Shelly Sarasin, she’s the cofounder and codirector of Street Angels, a local group providing homelessness outreach.

    “If you really want to know what it’s like to get into a shelter in Milwaukee, I challenge you to call 211 and let them know you’re homeless and need a shelter space.”

    Street Angels was founded in 2015, the same year as Milwaukee’s Housing First program. They currently send teams of volunteers out in buses three nights a week, distributing hot meals and other food, water, clothes, blankets and tents to people in need.

    “If you really want to know what it’s like to get into a shelter in Milwaukee,” Welch told Filter, “I challenge you to call 211 and let them know you’re homeless and need a shelter space—and you’ll see how that process goes.”

    “You’ll see them tell you, ‘I’m sorry there’s nothing available, but if you’re sleeping outside we can come verify that at 2 in the morning,'” she continued. “Unfortunately, there’s nowhere in Milwaukee a person can walk into and say, ‘I have nowhere to go, I need a safe space to sleep.’”

    Welch’s organization has consistently counted more unsheltered people than the official totals. That’s for several reasons: Milwaukee County’s “point in time” count is conducted on a single night in mid-January, when freezing temperatures temporarily deflate numbers outside. People’s shelter situations also change day-to-day, as they move between locations. And some people might not tell surveyors they are unsheltered because of the associated stigma.

    Eva Welch also expects that official numbers for 2023 will show a significant increase. Filter asked her more about Milwaukee’s landscape for unhoused people. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


    Alexander Lekhtman: What are some of the most important trends you’ve seen in Milwaukee since you started doing this work?

    Eva Welch: The trend of homelessness has been consistently rising. There was a lull during COVID-19 of people being sheltered, but that was due to the different hotel programs people were in during that time. Unfortunately, in the nine years we’ve been doing this, while the numbers have been steadily increasing of the people we’re seeing, there was no additional shelter space added. The number of unsheltered people on the streets has been increasing significantly; from 2022-2023, we saw a 54 percent increase in the number of people connecting with our services.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem much has changed in nine years. When we have folks completely living outdoors, and they’re calling for shelter space and being denied because it’s full and we haven’t added any emergency space, that blows my mind.

    “The concept is amazing. We just have to make sure there is that wraparound service once people are housed.”


    AL: What do you make of the county’s Housing First policy?

    EW: It’s fabulous; the concept is amazing. We just have to make sure there is that wraparound service once people are housed. I’m not sure we have the affordable housing to actually back it up. We know folks who have had housing vouchers for six months to a year, and couldn’t find a landlord.

    The other barrier is in order to qualify through Housing First, you have to have been documented as unsheltered homeless for at least 12 months. You also have to have a diagnosed medical illness or disability, so not everyone qualifies for that program.

    Every time we see someone, we log it and what we gave them. The reason we keep records is because we do get requests from agencies asking for a homelessness verification. That will include whatever dates we’ve seen them and where.

    We served one gentleman who was homeless for 26 years, before he received housing. We went to his house, and he’s sitting in his jacket and his apartment was freezing cold and his lights were off. He said, “The lights broke, and I don’t know how to turn the heat on.” He didn’t know how to change a light bulb or work his thermostat. It’s great he got housing, but without that wraparound care, he ended up back outdoors because it was so overwhelming for him.

    We know lots of folks who are housed through the Housing First program. The team is amazing, but we need a little more for that interim and for folks who don’t qualify.


    AL: How does the voucher system work?

    EW: Typically there is a caseworker that can assist you in finding a place. We’ve seen folks where they have a caseworker who goes really hard and finds you a home quickly, but then there’s other programs where people are told to just find a place on their own. If you have evictions on your record, a criminal history, [are] currently unemployed, these are things that landlords look at. Many folks end up being denied because of their past. It becomes a vicious circle for them.


    AL: Is a voucher enough to completely cover the cost of rent?

    EW: It probably was a year ago, but with inflation recently I’m not sure. Rent has increased significantly over the last few years here in Milwaukee.


    AL: What are some other unique factors in Milwaukee compared to other big cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, that have large unhoused populations?

    EW: The biggest difference here is you can die outside in the winter. You can get frostbite; that’s obviously one big difference from somewhere like Los Angeles.

    Another difference is the population of people experiencing homelessness is so much smaller here. Here it feels like we could be doing more to make sure people aren’t sleeping under the bridges.

    “I completely understand that housing ends homelessness, but shelter ends suffering.”


    AL: So what would that entail?

    EW: There’s not a blanket answer for everyone. Everyone’s reason for being homeless is different. So we have to offer multiple resources. There may be folks who aren’t comfortable in a congregate shelter setting due to mental health issues. Why aren’t we looking beyond congregates and making sure there are other options?

    I completely understand that housing ends homelessness, but shelter ends suffering. Nobody’s going to be homeless one day and get a house the next day—it doesn’t work like that. For many folks, they are homeless on the streets for many months to years; even if they have that housing voucher, they have to find a landlord who will rent to them. They have to find an affordable unit that the voucher will cover. There has to be support for people in that interim period, or many folks end up falling through the cracks.


    AL: Why haven’t more shelters been opened?

    EW: Since Housing First came out in 2015, there is this huge push to say, “housing ends homelessness and nothing else.” And there’s a part of me that believes there is a fear if they build more shelter, more homeless folks will come to Milwaukee.

    If we build another shelter and we’re still over capacity, maybe we need to start telling the suburbs that they need a shelter too. There’s almost a stigma against adding more shelter. Last year, we documented 769 people who were verified unsheltered, and almost 80 percent of them would have accepted shelter. We’ve had families in hotels for weeks and months before shelter is available.

    “At this point we literally are just trying to keep people alive until their number comes up for housing.”


    AL: So we’re not talking only about congregate shelter?

    EW: Any shelter. Some do have private rooms but are still considered congregate. When it’s women with families, you typically have private rooms. Even when we opened our emergency winter warming rooms, they were full completely to capacity. Last year, there was not even enough warming room space for people. If we’re putting up 300 emergency winter rooms and they’re full, that gives us a mental note of how many folks are truly outside, but that’s just in that area. If we have emergency shelter that’s 15 miles away, that person’s not going to get there.


    AL: Let’s say you have someone who meets the criteria; they get a voucher and get into an apartment. What does that person need to be properly supported?

    That really depends on each individual. They need a support system, regardless of what issues they have. Unfortunately for us, we’re a very small organization. We don’t have the capacity to do any wraparound care. Our focus is folks on the street.

    There are some programs and folks where we see them get fabulous wraparound care, and there’s some where no one’s come to check on them in six months. It depends on the program, the caseworker and the individual.


    AL: What will Milwaukee be doing to help people who are unsheltered next winter?

    EW: Luckily this year there is a winter warming committee established. I hope we will have a more permanent solution, but for folks outside, we do what we can. We provide hand warmers, zero-degree sleeping bags, tents … at this point we literally are just trying to keep people alive until their number comes up for housing.



    Photograph of Eva Welch by Street Angels via Facebook

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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