By Eelisa Jones
With contributions by Ariele Vaccaro
On any given night Milwaukee County contains roughly 1,400 individuals who are considered homeless. For this population, the notion of home remains a transitory one accompanied by the fear of being physically or emotionally harassed and the constant possibility of being asked to vacate.
Several government and grassroots agencies have attempted to decrease the relatively stable numbers of Milwaukee’s total homeless population. Milwaukee Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (MPDHOT) and Milwaukee County’s Continuum Care are the two most present government agencies dedicated to addressing homelessness. In addition to these agencies, non-government groups such as Milwaukee’s Hope House and Guest House have taken community care for the homeless to new levels.
With the support of these organizations and several others, county and city representative announced this summer an ambitious goal: to end chronic homelessness within the next three years. They have stated their intentions to follow New York’s “housing first” initiative which has been a model adopted throughout the nation. Milwaukee officials have dedicated roughly $5.5 million to address the financial, physical, and mental health issues which affect Milwaukee’s homeless.
Lead by James Mathy, Head Administrator of Milwaukee County Housing Department, the initiative has pursued several different avenues to reach its goal. Mathy’s department has worked with landlords to increase available subsidized housing options, linked up housing options with 24/7 chronic alcohol treatment by establishing Thurgood Marshall Apartments (1918 N 6th St.), and coordinated a number of wraparound services to “help Milwaukee’s homeless thrive.” Milwaukee’s Housing First Initiative has already exceeded expectations by housing roughly 100 homeless individuals in six months.
Two major examples of some of the on-the-ground organizations which Mathy’s department has teamed up with are MPDHOT and Continuum Care. First organized in 2010 by Lt. Karen Dubis and Capt. Stephen Basting, MPDHOT began with six officers who agreed to seek out and assist the homeless in the City of Milwaukee. Armed with clothing, water, camping supplies, and connections to supportive organizations, these officers offered help instead of citations to homeless individuals. The MPDHOT has expanded to several dozen officers and gained recent recognition in Faith Kohler’s “30 Seconds Away” – a 2015 documentary covering the lives of several homeless individuals within the city. “Usually our process of engagement when we first meet someone, they’re kind of reluctant to deal with the police,” said Officer Dan Stiles, a member of the MPDHOT. “Now with the additional options that we are able to meet with them and… tell them, ‘Hey, there’s this new program available, Housing First.’ It takes a little bit to get the buy-in for them because they don’t believe that we’re going to hook them up with a house.”
Another government agency aimed at helping the homeless is Continuum Care. Continuum Care is a government-sponsored hub for organizations and individuals dedicated to entirely end homelessness in Milwaukee County. The agency most notably works with the semi-permanent housing entities of Hope House and Guest House. Last month County Executive Chris Abele opened Continuum Care’s 6th annual Milwaukee Project Homeless Connect (MPHC) – a one-day event dedicated to connecting members of the homeless community with government and nonprofit agencies.
“We want to come as close as we can to solving this problem, to answer this question better than any metro in the United States,” said Abele. “That’s good because it’s the morally right thing to do. But it’s really good because… we’re forced to ask ourselves, ‘How many of these other issues can we maybe make a bigger progress on than we think? How many other issues can we take on and say, ‘We can solve this?’”
Event organizers offered resources in the realms of preventative health, employment, nutrition, and clothing. Several hundred volunteers and agency representatives gathered in the Marquette University Alumni Memorial Union to facilitate a one-day mass effort to support Milwaukee’s homeless. A few hours after the event had concluded, organizers announced that the 2015 MPHC had assisted over 600 individuals.
The condition of homelessness stretches beyond the lack of a legal right to a private space. It also includes a social stigma which is difficult – if not impossible – to ignore when out on the streets. Perhaps Milwaukee’s homeless resident, David Barker said it best in his 2013 interview with The Journal Sentinel:
“I guess you can call us invisible. I mean we’re there, but most of the time people don’t want to look at you. It’s better that they pretend that you don’t exist.”
With the increasing number of individuals who set up in the medians of Milwaukee’s main streets with signs asking for money, work, or food, it is becoming easier to recognize this stigma of invisibility – at times hostility – that surrounds the homeless and publicly poor in our community.
Poverty and homelessness rates are understandably linked; the lack of financial resources reign supreme over any other cause for an inability to secure stable housing. Ever since its manufacturing industry collapse in the 1970s and 80s, Milwaukee has maintained a firm presence among the nation’s 10 poorest cities. Throughout the collapse, poverty hit the black population hardest, as many black Milwaukeeans had come specifically for manufacturing jobs. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that presently about 21 percent of Milwaukee residents live below the poverty threshold.
Homelessness due to financial instability is generally correlated with loss of employment, domestic abuse (unexpected departure of survivors), prior military service, severe mental illness, family instability, and chronic substance abuse. Since 2011, the population of homeless individuals who suffer from severe mental illness and domestic violence has increased by about 15 percent.