County program offers free housing to the chronically homeless

Free housing for people living on the street, no strings attached, compliments of Milwaukee County.  Is that enough to make you do a double take as a taxpayer? 

You might be surprised by the numbers.  This new initiative is helping hundreds and, according to the county, saving money.

Donald Allen has lived on the streets most of his life, but an incredible gift from the county is helping him and many others come in from the cold.  He walked us through his old stomping grounds by the Milwaukee County Courthouse.  When the weather was warmer Allen used to sleep on a windowsill.  "During the summertime it's not so bad out here," he told us.

Allen was homeless most of his life, "since I was 18. 1978 on and off."  He explained finding employment has been tough because of health reasons.  "It's hard to keep a place if you can't keep a job.  I've got a bad knee.  I find it's kind of hard for me to stand."

Allen spent his days during Wisconsin's cold winters looking for a warm place to rest.  Many times that was a cement floor in random buildings. "When you ain't got nothing it's better than nothing," he pointed out.

And then three months ago, Allen's life changed. "I said this is impossible. You know, I don't believe it."  He now has a home, compliments of Milwaukee County. "I'm still getting into the swing of things," he told us.

The program is called "Housing First."  It's based on a national model that's been successful in a handful of other cities.  Utah started the program statewide in 2005 and has housed more than 2,000 people, drastically reducing its homeless population.  Milwaukee County launched its version in September. 

The head of the county's housing division, James Mathy, is proud of the program that has so far exceeded expectations.  "The county executive asked for a big plan for homelessness, and we came up with ending chronic homelessness."  The short term goal was to house 100 chronically homeless in one year. 
"We hit our first 100 in about three and a half months," Mathy explained.

Some of those people were homeless for decades. The house comes first, then the program focuses on other needs, and there are no strings attached - meaning people don't have to be sober or drug free. 

Luke Rosynek does outreach for Housing First.  He knows where to find Milwaukee's homeless.  Some are not yet sold on the program, like LT. 

Homeless for years, we ran into LT riding along with Rosynek.  There is a spot for LT, but he's not yet ready to come inside.  "There's a few people where it just takes a little bit of selling I suppose. Or wait until they're ready," Rosynek said.

Many of LT's neighbors left this riverbed behind for Housing First.  So word is spreading.  "They're all talking to each other and getting to know it is really working."

And the county is doing the math.  When people have a home, it's less of a burden on other services.  Right now Housing First per person costs less than $35 a day.  If that same person ends up in prison, the county pays $100 a day.   If Milwaukee Police respond to a call it's $950, and each visit to the emergency room runs more than $1,000.

Helping Housing First get off the ground are people like Ollie Bell, Allen's new landlord.  "Someone has to be willing to take the first step," she told us.  Ms. Bell and Allen have been friends for years, but she was never able to offer permanent help until her son passed away.  Allen is now her upstairs neighbor. "My son was a minister and this place was vacant, and I know he would want me to help if I could."

Allen is taking that help and moving forward, "looking back is not good.  You gotta just keep straight ahead."

Most Housing First tenants don't pay rent.  Counseling, case management and other services are offered but not required.  There are basic rules.  Tenants can't destroy property or bother neighbors.  Right now all 100 chronically homeless placed are still in homes and have agreed to receive case management services.  The county estimates there are still 200 chronically homeless individuals;  they want to have space for all 200 by 2018.

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