Milwaukee County Leads Nation in Fight Against Homelessness

Just 17 people were unsheltered in January 2021, a sharp drop since local officials adopted the Housing First model.

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Officials took time this week to trumpet a hard-fought win in battle against homelessness: that Milwaukee County has the lowest per capita unsheltered homeless population in the country

The 17 unsheltered individuals counted last year, represented a reduction of more than 70% from the previous year’s total of 89. The figures are generated by surveys by local teams each January and reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Housing security is a key determinant of health for county residents. When you can’t count on having a roof over your head at night, it compounds stress and anxiety and contributes mightily to the poor health disparities we see throughout the region,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said. “I’m happy to say that by prioritizing an evidence-based approach and maximizing collaborative efforts in the public and private sectors, we have reached this significant milestone, but the work is not done. As a county, region and whole community, we must use this momentum to accelerate our efforts to invest upstream and end chronic homelessness in Milwaukee County.”

Milwaukee County invests funds into a so-called Housing First approach that focuses on getting people permanent housing first, then addressing other factors that contribute to the cycle of homelessness such as mental health, substance abuse or job training. The county Housing Division has dramatically reduced chronic homelessness in the county, largely through tracking and outreach efforts as part of the Housing First initiative launched in 2015.



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“Housing is a human right, and we are going to take individuals, especially those living on our streets, and put them into permanent housing as quickly as possible to permanently end their cycle of homelessness,” Milwaukee County Housing Administrator James Mathy said. “That’s really the overarching theme to all this. With Housing First, it’s not just putting someone into housing, it is wrapping voluntary services around them in every way, shape and form.”

Since adopting the Housing First approach in 2015, Milwaukee has seen a 92% reduction in the unsheltered homeless population. Milwaukee County has also administered more than $110 million in federal emergency rental assistance funds.

“With the Housing First initiative, Milwaukee County has led the way with critical investments to combat homelessness. When we reduce homelessness, we not only have healthier and safer communities, but also save taxpayers money by avoiding undue burdens on our legal and health systems,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said in a statement.

State Rep. Gwen Moore said housing is a “stabilizing force” that helps people build successful lives. “I am so proud of what our local leaders are doing, but we must all understand that the fight against homelessness is an ongoing challenge,” Moore said in a statement.

Several local leaders held a press briefing at 3rd Street Market Hall on Thursday to speak of the issue of homelessness in the Milwaukee area, the challenges of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID pandemic that we have been dealing with since 2020 has vastly increased the combined work of all of us to address the issue of homelessness right here in our own back yard,” newly elected Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said.

The effort to end homelessness has received a major boost from Milwaukee’s business community, Mathy said. “One of the rare things that this community has brought to the table is the support of our business community,” Mathy said. “This type of partnership you don’t see across the country.”

Beth Weirick, CEO of Milwaukee Downtown, BID 21, said the unsheltered residents who have been helped through the Housing First model have experienced a dramatic increase in their quality of life. At the same time, there’s been a reduction in crisis service utilization, emergency room visits and public nuisance citations.

“We are going to continue our commitment to long-term solutions,” Weirick said. “The evidence exists. It is right in front of our faces. This Housing First model works. I can only hope that this best practice, this public-private practice, becomes a model for the rest of the country so we can end homelessness not only in Milwaukee County but in our great nation.” 

The county also highlighted other related news.

Milwaukee County recently received a $7 million American Relief Plan Act contribution from the state to focus on the development of more than 100 homes in the neighborhood surrounding Milwaukee County’s Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center, 1200 W. Vliet St.

Last month, the Milwaukee County Board approved a $2 million investment from county ARPA funds for housing services to partner with Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Services to create additional crisis beds to immediately assist those who are victims of trauma or find themselves in an active crisis situation.

The county also recently was awarded an $895,000 competitive grant through HUD’s Continuum of Care process to serve adult families and individuals fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence, individuals involved in the street-based sex trade and survivors of sex trafficking.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.