Milwaukee County has a homeless outreach team that checks in with people living on the street every day, and works to get them help. We got a look at how their work has changed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The biggest thing was being able to have access to a mask and gloves,” said Damir Djidic, the lead community intervention specialist for the Milwaukee County Housing Division. “The homeless people are still out here and need us, so if we were to stop coming and checking in with them, I think the situation for them would be much, much worse.”
We went with Djidic to check on the homeless people staying near 6th and Rosedale on Milwaukee’s south side.
Djidic moved to the U.S. from Bosnia 20 years ago and started working with homeless teens in Chicago before moving to Milwaukee. He’s been working for the Milwaukee County Housing Division for four years. His goal is to get everyone some form of housing or shelter.
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It’s a job that’s become even more critical in the time of COVID-19. Many shelters had to shut down, and are now reopening with much limited capacity.
“These are people just like us that have been down on their luck, or got caught up in the wrong stuff, and need help getting back on their feet,” Djidic said. “Typically, they’re struggling with some issues that are preventing them from being able to do so on their own. We approach them with kindness and respect, and see how we can help each individual.”
With most hotels closed because of coronavirus concerns, Milwaukee City and County have been partnering to pay for hotel rooms for homeless. The Ambassador Hotel is one that’s stepping up.
They also match people in need of housing with landlords willing to accept rent assistance.
“Then, we continue working with them while they’re staying at a hotel, or once they’re in housing, to make sure they can get back on their feet and maintain it,” Djidic said.
It’s essential work that all too often goes unnoticed.
“I give everybody major kudos for what they are doing,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. “We have people sacrificing a lot to make sure others are moving forward.”
Though the numbers are hard to track, the Milwaukee County Housing Division estimates there are 25 people living outside, unsheltered right now. Last year around this time, there were more than 100 people.
But, this number of people living unsheltered could change quickly if funding to any housing program is cut, and potentially when Wisconsin’s ban on evictions is lifted.
Crowley and the county’s housing division are already working to make sure there’s no fall-out in homeless outreach as COVID-19 restrictions loosen.
“While we never wanted a pandemic, we are receiving some additional resources that we hope can stay around after the pandemic, so we can continue serving our people.,” Djidic said.
“I think it really points to new models that can be created,” Crowley said. “These are challenging times but I think we can continue finding many opportunities to make things more efficient and provide critical services like this.”