MilMag Interview: Beth Lappen on the Soft Science of Helping Downtown’s Homeless

Beth Lappen is one of a handful of workers offering a door to housing for Milwaukee’s homeless community. Sometimes they need help going through it.

Milwaukee’s effort to fight homelessness is built on hundreds of small success stories, with a victory in each person who moves into a place of their own. But it also had a big one this year: Homelessness in Milwaukee County reached its lowest level in at least 10 years last winter, with just 17 people sleeping on the streets, in parks or in their cars.

Most of those small success stories have the same beginning: a conversation with a homeless outreach worker like Beth Lappen.

She and her four colleagues with Milwaukee County’s Housing Division – plus about a dozen others with social service agencies – act as the bridge connecting shelters and housing to the people who desperately need them. The job involves finding people who sometimes don’t want to be found, building trust to understand what they need, and figuring out how to get it to them – all within a pecking order for scarce resources, which means that people usually can’t get help right away. Lappen has done outreach for five years, and since July 2019 has focused her efforts on the high-need Downtown area in a position funded in part by the Downtown Business Improvement District.

There’s a dark undercurrent to this year’s good news. The local portion of $4 billion in federal aid that made much of this year’s gains possible – including hotel stays for more than 200 homeless people and the emergency, socially distanced shelter at Clare Hall, a vacant seminary dormitory in St. Francis – is expected to run out next year.

But right now, Lappen and her colleagues have their focus on the streets and the people living there.

Did last January’s count reflect the reality that you were seeing on the ground – was almost everybody in some kind of shelter?

I think we know as a community that we never know everybody out there, because there are people sleeping in abandoned buildings, in cars that move around. There are individuals that we cannot find, but we are very good at what we do, and we have a lot of partners that help us keep our eyes out for folks that need assistance.

This last winter we saw a record low, and a lot of it has to do with our homeless system – the shelters, the health department – partnering to try to create different, more unique safe places for people to be off the streets, socially distanced.

What have you seen since then? What is this year looking like?

We do regularly see an increase in spring. This year, it didn’t happen as early, but in the last four to six weeks [September through mid-October], we’re seeing an increase of individuals on the street, in cars, in parks, under bridges, things like that.

How big of a factor have the COVID emergency measures been?

With the eviction moratorium being in place for as long as it was [through late August], I don’t think we are even yet realizing how that will impact numbers. We definitely will continue to see them going up, which is concerning all of us since we’re heading into the colder weather.

Have the extra services from the CARES Act – the hotel vouchers, Clare Hall – raised the standard for how to fight homelessness?

What the pandemic forced us to do isn’t sustainable for us as a system with regular funding sources and regular members. The emergency hotels kind of go back to the funding question. We didn’t want to spend all of the funds, and then everyone is just kicked out to the street if we can’t find something else for them. So as of April 1, [we] accepted no new admissions to the emergency hotel voucher programs and basically protected the placement of those individuals in there and kept working with them on plans to either transition into something else or to transition into their own permanent housing. But we needed to make sure that we can sustain that, so people don’t have to return to the street.

The main challenge is that ultimately, there isn’t enough affordable housing, and so for the funding we have, we don’t want to put it into short-term options for people; we want to put it into long-term options. I think that’s the balance that our system is always forced to try to strike: How many emergency shelter beds can we offer, while still having permanent housing options for people that might not be able to afford their own place?

Your role is very much more on the front line and emergency side of things, so seeing that balance has to be difficult.

It is extremely difficult. The honest truth is that people want to get off the streets, but more so they’re like, “Yes, but I need housing.” Some people never accept shelter – they want to go straight from the street into housing. It’s an amazing, beautiful thing when that happens, but I don’t have an apartment [available] to walk people into every day.

I think our system with everybody working together does a good job. There are almost never any shelter beds that go unused on a daily basis because we all work together to identify who the people are who need it most – and then backups, so that if we can’t reach that person or if they ultimately declined for whatever reason, we go and we find the next person. Because it is such a valuable resource.

You mentioned sometimes people are resistant to getting the help that’s available. What are some of the obstacles they face getting emergency help?

There obviously can be as many obstacles as there are people, but I think what I see often is maybe just feeling unsafe or uncomfortable. They’re being asked to make a choice to suddenly live with a bunch of people they’ve never met before. It can be such a challenging environment because people in there are in a desperate situation. There’s obviously history of trauma, of mental illness, substance use. All those things can get in the way because in order to help people feel safe – guests and staff – they need to have some sort of structure and rules, and those things can also be barriers.

And that’s where you come in, creating a one-to-one connection to try to get them help.

It is quite a bit of what I do, and it’s probably the hardest part for people to understand because most of us are fortunately in housing, and we can’t imagine turning help down, if we were in that position.

The key is to be persistent and consistent. We have to not give up, we have to keep showing up for people. And just continuing to check in, so that they know we’re here for them. The day that they want to say yes, we want to make sure that we’re there. There are some people that if I see them walking, sitting, wherever, I pull over and I jump out and I talk to them, even if it’s five minutes, because not everyone is easy to find.

And obviously a big key is compassion. People can tell when you really care or when you’re just sort of doing your job. And so being able to convey to them that we really do care, we really do want to help, is key as well.

And making sure that we listen. Sometimes their priority is not mine. I need to make sure I’m hearing from them what is most important to them, what they’re most worried about, and then help them with that thing. Even if it seems trivial to me, I need to make sure I’m really, truly meeting them where they’re at and helping them with the thing that’s bothering them most.

A lot of times, that is where the rapport starts. They notice that you heard them, they noticed that you’re trying to help them with that thing, and if you succeed, awesome. Then, sometimes, it opens the door wide.

This summer, I had the privilege of helping two gentlemen move from the street into housing, and it was their very first apartment. They were both in their 50s, and it was their first apartment that they held by themselves.

That has to be pretty satisfying.

Absolutely, but I think it’s important for people to know if you tell me there’s someone who’s homeless, I’m going to go out there – well, me or a co-worker or a colleague at another team – and we’re going to talk to that person. But I think people often expect that they’ll just immediately get help. It’s just never that easy, and so that’s where awareness and compassion from the community is helpful, because even if they want shelter, there might not be a space right away. We might be prioritizing someone who’s over 70 or under 30, or who has some sort of physical health issue. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not helping. And all of our services are voluntary; we can’t force anyone to accept the help, so we really have to make them want to work with us.

Our focus is and has to be: what is your fastest path to housing, how do we resolve this issue for you permanently? Don’t get me wrong, we always bring snacks and supplies like that, but that’s not our focus. We want people to be safe on the street, but we aren’t trying hard to make people comfortable. We want them to want to come inside, obviously, because that ultimately has to be the goal – in their way, when they’re ready.

Are there enough resources to get everybody who’s on the streets or couch surfing or in shelter into housing? Is zero an attainable goal right now in Milwaukee?

I want to say yes. I’m eternally optimistic. But it does feel impossible. Our system, per federal requirements, has to prioritize people who are on the street or in shelter. We do have eviction prevention, homeless prevention programs, but the priority remains people who are already literally homeless, so we don’t get to catch everyone.

And if I could get everything I wanted on my Christmas list this year, it would be more affordable housing. There will never be enough housing vouchers for everyone who needs one and is eligible for one. I feel like our community needs to get creative in making sure that rentals are safe, offer sufficient housing and shelter, but also can be afforded for people on, you know, Social Security and things like that.

And we cannot end homelessness without landlord partners, so we need people who are compassionate and willing to give people a chance, even if they ended up homeless because of an eviction – letting us work with them and try to support them and help them succeed in housing.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.

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Executive editor, Milwaukee Magazine. Aficionado of news, sports and beer. Dog and cat guy. (Yes, both.)