Why ending family homelessness is key to the success of our community
United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County and community partners launched a new initiative, Safe & Stable Homes: Ending Family Homelessness
Everything starts with the home. Whether it’s having an address so you can be employed or being able to stay in the same school all year, the root of all good things for families is a sense of place and a sense of home. Having a place to call home is the foundation of a healthy and successful life.
Unfortunately, many families in our community are one missed rent or mortgage payment away from homelessness. United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County and community partners want to make sure all families have the opportunity to have that sense of place, a safe and stable home they can call their own.
Krystina Kohler of United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County points out that federal and philanthropic funding is traditionally focused on emergency needs, providing funding for temporary shelter. “Since we’ve been looking at homelessness this way for so long,” said Kohler, “it’s a challenge to see that homelessness can be eradicated, saving public funds and decreasing trauma in the meantime.”
“As long as we as a society believe that homelessness can’t be solved, we won’t be able to solve it,” said Emily Kenney, from IMPACT, a local nonprofit. “If we think about housing as a human right that is deserved and not earned, and then figure out how we fund that, we can solve homelessness.”
While it may sound simple, the root of homelessness lies in a person’s lack of permanent housing. They may still have their other issues, which may have had a direct relationship to their homelessness, but with a safe and stable roof over their head, they can begin to address those issues outside of the experience of a constant crisis.
“Most of the people I’ve met who are chronically homeless are there because we have refused to house them for one reason or another,” Kenney said. “They’ve cycled in and out of programming and ultimately were homeless for years. Because we didn’t focus on the right solution—permanent housing. We created a very expensive problem. This is why it’s important to think about permanent housing as the solution to homelessness.”
United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County has taken this issue head on and is working with government officials, researchers, and homeless service providers to change the landscape of their community.
The goal is to move from addressing the crisis needs of those experiencing homelessness, to one that ends and prevents homelessness.
An end to homelessness means that homelessness is prevented whenever possible, and if it can’t be prevented, it is a rare, brief, and one-time experience
Over the past two years, an advisory council led by United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County has been in the discussion and planning stages for ways to end family homeless in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha counties.
Safe & Stable Homes: Ending Family Homelessness has two lenses. One lens looks at families currently in homelessness. The other focuses on families living on the brink, experiencing housing instability.
The first lens is based on the “Housing First” philosophy, well-documented in its proof that the placement of a person or family into permanent housing is the only solution to homelessness. Once people are connected to an apartment that they feel safe and happy in, they can move forward in receiving necessary support services and begin to improve other parts of their lives.
“Housing First models end homelessness, erasing a popular misperception that homelessness is irreversible,” according to Kohler, of United Way. “Prevention models are also proven to be effective, most recently highlighted in a Wisconsin Policy Forum report.”
Prevention efforts including landlord/tenant mediation, legal aid in eviction court, one-time rent and utility assistance, and embedding housing case managers in schools to identify early signs of students’ housing instability are all models that United Way’s Safe & Stable Homes: Ending Family Homelessness initiative will support over the next five years.
PERMANENT SUPPORTIVE HOUSING
Kenney has spent years as a case manager and now as the program director of the Coordinated Entry system that connects people to permanent supportive housing.
“Permanent supportive housing” refers to an apartment unit that has the majority of its rent covered with a housing voucher and includes voluntary wraparound case-management services.
Kenney has repeatedly witnessed the inherent success of permanent housing for Milwaukee residents.
“A mom and her two kids moved in; they had been living out of her car,” Kenney said. “She was able to get a job in a surrounding suburb and afford to keep her car fixed and full of gas. She was in a Rapid Rehousing program, which means that she had about 12 months of support. She only needed six, meaning her income exceeded the amount for a voucher after six months. Without being given a chance at permanent housing, she was still struggling just to make ends meet for her kids and couldn’t focus on getting employment.”
In another case, Eric Collins-Dyke, outreach services manager at the Milwaukee County Housing Division, shared that a Milwaukee County Housing Navigator helped a chronically homeless gentleman who used psychiatric crisis services 91 times, a crisis mobile unit 18 times, and a detox facility nine times—all within the previous four-year period. The man had unsuccessfully cycled through shelter and housing programs for six years.
After the gentleman was connected to permanent supportive housing in November 2016, he has not required crisis psychiatric services since. The Housing First program has a 96% retention rate.
With the stability of a safe home and supportive case management, this man was able to address his mental health needs. The three crisis services this single individual had previously used cost the community about $48,350 a year.
In contrast, the cost of rent plus case management is closer to $12,000 per year, with the vast majority of that being covered by federally funded Section 8 housing vouchers.
Kohler hopes that United Way donors will understand the long-term public cost savings from investments that end and prevent homelessness.A recent 2017-18 study of pro bono legal representation of tenants in Milwaukee County eviction cases found a return on investment of $2.23 for every $1 invested.
According to Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project, typically less than 1% of tenants have legal representation in eviction cases, but 68% of those who do have their evictions dismissed or delayed—preventing those families from entering the homelessness cycle.
Increasing legal assistance to support more families in eviction cases is a goal of Safe & Stable Homes: Ending Family Homelessness.
A CommonBond report in three other Midwestern states determined that every $1 invested in permanent supportive housing resulted in $4 in social benefits. A specific Wisconsin study proves even more significant: $6.75 for every $1 spent.
Further, initial studies indicate that during their first 12 months of housing, Housing First residents in Milwaukee utilized 539 fewer mental health crisis services, resulting in cost savings exceeding $714,600.
Nationally, studies have found that the cost savings from Housing First programs average between $23,000 and $31,545 per person, a hugely significant sum.
“It is fiscally responsible to invest in ending and preventing homelessness,” said Kohler.
“When you prevent a family from falling into the trauma of homelessness, you put their children in a position to succeed in school, and you put the parents in a position where they can focus on their income and address their health issues without using crisis services.”
Kenney adds, “When parents are focused on where to sleep or figuring out which bill to skip to pay rent, they can’t focus as much on their kids.”
“Beyond all the complexities, traumas, and challenges that accompany homelessness,” said Collins-Dyke, “the singular, most salient reason someone is homeless, is because they don’t have a permanent place to live. It’s time we recognize that in our community and understand that we can put our immediate efforts into permanent solutions, while continuing to tackle the structural factors that contribute to homelessness.”
Visit UnitedWayGMWC.org to learn how you can join the fight for a permanent end to family homelessness in our community.