Under the Overpass

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Under the Overpass

Photo by Jordan Johnson

Photo by Jordan Johnson

Photo by Jordan Johnson

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Take a moment to consider life without four walls and a roof; without shelter from the storm; without safety, or warmth, or a place to call your own.

A house or apartment provides more than a place to rest: it provides security, stability and certainty knowing that there’s a place to call home.

These protections were not guaranteed for 553,000 Americans on an average night in 2018, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That includes 4, 907 Wisconsinites, among them 660 families and 332 veterans, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

During the 2016-’17 school year, a study by the National Center for Homeless Education found more than one million homeless students in America, including more than 19,000 from the state of Wisconsin.

The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law ensuring the right of students to go receive an education even when they do not have a permanent address or who are experiencing homeless.

The act counts students who are living doubled up in another residence due to economic circumstances. Doubled up is defined by “children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship or similar reason.”

“About 75% of our homeless students are living doubled up,” Kristine Nadolski, co-coordinator of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s homeless education program, says. “HUD doesn’t really account for that.”

Homelessness is a complex problem that does not have a single solution. However, many Milwaukee community members are working toward the goal of ending homelessness their own ways.

Eric Collins-Dyke is a homeless outreach services manager for the Housing First program.

Its mission is simple: end homelessness by giving shelter to those who need it most.

Housing First has given shelter to more than 400 people since 2015. It has a retention rate of 96%.

Collins-Dyke says a large reason for the program’s success is the utilizations of vouchers. Housing First, Section 8 (otherwise known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program) and shelter care vouchers are all useable with landlords around Milwaukee county. The vouchers provide assistance in paying for rent and utility expenses for low-income tenants.

Applicants for vouches are given priority based on the vulnerability index, a nationwide test HUD determines on how urgent it is to place someone in housing.

“There’s a couple of weeks here this summer … where we’ve seen families with multiple children on the street,” Collins-Dyke gives as an example of someone with priority. “Generally, if you have minor children, you’re prioritized into shelter housing placement.”

Those whose lives are at risk if they remain homeless are perceived as a priority status. The vulnerability index accounts for risk of those experiencing homelessness, including time spent on the street, substance abuse and chronic homelessness.

Chronic homelessness defines a person who is prone to experience bouts of homelessness for extended periods of time.

Collins-Dyke says a person is considered chronically homeless if they are without shelter for four periods of time, equal to 365 days over the course of three years.

Collins-Dyke says Housing First tries to provide tenants with furniture, like a bed, dresser couch or coffee table, as funding allows. Tenants can also connect with Housing First’s support system which includes onsite case managers provided by seven different community partners. Tenants at Housing First can receive help for any medical or behavioral health issues, secure legal consultations or receive aid in re-entering employment.

In order to make this happen, Housing First gets part of its funding from Milwaukee County, particularly the county tax levy, a property tax that funds government affairs determined by the county assessorCollins-Dyke credits Milwaukee County executive Chris Abele for the funding stream.

Collins-Dyke says Milwaukee’s current housing market is optimal for Housing First, as low rent and a 6-8% vacancy rate make vouchers easier to distribute.

“You can still get a one-bedroom here for like $650,” Collins-Dyke says. “We’re pretty unique in that sense.”

He points to the city of Madison as an example of where vouchers are priced out of the rental market. He warns, however, rapid economic development in Milwaukee might draw a similar outcome in the next five years.

New housing practices are also complicating the program. Many landlords are amenable to Housing First as they appreciate the guaranteed money that comes from tenants with vouchers, but new application fees fall in a funding gap for Housing First.

“For any apartment at this point, whether it’s mom-and-pop private landlords or larger, everyone is charging application fees,” Collins-Dyke says. “What we’re seeing is … 30, 40, 25 dollars that we don’t have.”

Beth Weirick, CEO of Milwaukee Downtown, is hoping to fill that gap.

Key to Change, a nonprofit organization Milwaukee Downtown formed in 2017, is one of the funding streams for Housing First, as it facilitates donations to the Housing First endowment fund and move-in kits for Housing First units that include clothes, toiletries and blankets.

The organization recently expanded to provide donations to pay application fees for voucher applicants. Weirick says Milwaukee Downtown also helps cover security deposits.

“We can make that cash available to offset or completely cover costs that might be affiliated with either of those processes,” Weirick says. “I’ve been told that’s anywhere from 100 to 300 dollars, it really depends on the unit and the landlord agreement.”

As of Oct. 4, the future of the encampment is now in jeopardy. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation served the encampment an eviction notice citing the need to begin work on that stretch of I-794. Residents of the camp have until Oct. 31 to clear their belongings.

“The DOT has been a patient and understanding partner in all of this, and has assured us that we will have the necessary time needed to find indoor placements for everyone at the encampment,” Collins-Dyke says in an email.

Collins-Dyke says the next steps will be to get camp residents into temporary housing that will double as an assessment center to move into more permanent solutions. Housing First will work in conjunction with Outreach Community Health Centers, Homeless Outreach Nursing Center (Community Advocates) and Impact 2-1-1 to set up temporary shelters.

The Red Cross is donating cots, blankets, water and food for the shelters. The United Way of Great Milwaukee and Waukesha County are donating $75,000 to the effort, which Collins-Dyke says he is grateful for.

While Collins-Dyke says there are pockets of drug use and some assaults that have occurred at the camps, he says people experiencing homelessness are not unsafe human beings; they live in unsafe environments and unsafe things happen there.

“When you’re painting the population with a broad brush, it does a massive disservice,” Collins-Dyke says.

Between Collins-Dyke and Weirick, there’s a common sentiment: “Housing is a human right.”

Visible to Marquette students is the Milwaukee Rescue Mission located on the corner of 18th and Wells streets. President of the Rescue Mission Patrick Vanderburgh says he’s glad to be a neighbor to Marquette.

The Mission has 150 bed and houses around 170 men on average, Vanderburgh says. During the winter, the shelter can have up to 250 single men staying there in a night.

He adds the population at the shelter is constantly changing. Since Jan. 1, he estimates 1,200 different individuals have rotated through the shelter.

“The number isn’t static,” Vanderburgh says.

Vanderburgh says he’s recently seen a greater influx of people at the shelter from the suburbs, particularly “young men from affluent or middle-class communities.”

The Mission’s guiding principles come from the Christian faith, Vanderburgh says. It offers a number of programs, including overcoming drug addiction and helping men enter the workforce. It organizes the Joy House, which provides support to homeless women with children and the Door of Hope that provides similar support to unaccompanied women.

The goal of these programs is “transformation through the Gospel,” Vanderburgh says. He add the church can be helpful, especially when it comes to lifelong struggles against addiction.

“We make it very clear to people (that) if they come here, they’re going to hear about Jesus,” Vanderburgh says. “But our food, clothing and shelter are open to everyone.”

The Mission’s policies also reflect on safety. Tenants can come and go as they please, but there is a 7 p.m. curfew. There’s also a metal detector and tenants are expected not to be intoxicated, though Vanderburgh says they can be flexible if tenants are cooperative.

Vanderburgh says Marquette University Police Department has been a great help in providing security for residents of the shelter.

MUPD officer Gary Bray says the Mission is the “go-to location” for MUPD when trying to help an individual locate a shelter.

Bray has been leading MUPD’s homeless outreach team for five years. The team has received training in conjunction with the Milwaukee Police Department to learn about services it can provide to people experiencing homelessness.

While the department does not have specific policies in place to address homelessness, Bray says it’s covered by the unwritten rule of the department:

“We just try to help people,” Bray says. “Maybe it’s, you know, kind of a new start on life.”

Though, Bray says MUPD does not forcibly relocate homeless people off of Marquette’s campus.

MUPD also provides resources from different organizations in its roll call room. Bray cites the Church of Gesu as a major donor, but also says that students and employees have dropped off clothes and toiletries.

However, a recent interaction with a local non-profit indicates that people distributing food to the homeless on their own might receive tickets.

Eva Welch, co-founder of the non-profit Milwaukee Street Angels, posted to Facebook Sept. 19 about MUPD sending a response team when the Street Angles tried to distribute food in the parking lot of the once Ramada Inn that Marquette has purchased.

The post says MUPD officers arrived at the scene and asked about the Street Angels’ activity on the lot, stating that tickets would be distributed if they return.

MUPD did not respond to comment before deadlines regarding this incident.

However, Bray says things have changed over the last few years from when organizations would act independently and do things on their own, citing a willingness for organizations to talk more to each other about what they can do to better serve Milwaukee’s homeless population.

“Things are changing and we’re starting to talk a lot more with different organizations and trying to have a collaborative effort,” Bray says. “That’s kind of changing, which is very positive.”