Milwaukee’s efforts to fight homelessness are built on hundreds of small success stories, with each person moving to their own place of triumph. But it also had a major event 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 these small success stories have the same beginning: a conversation with a homeless outreach worker like Beth Lapin.
She and her four colleagues in the Milwaukee County Department of Housing—plus about a dozen others with social service agencies—act as a bridge connecting shelters and housing to the people who need it most. 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 selective order of scarce resources, which means people usually can’t. Get help right away. Lappen has done outreach for five years, and since July 2019 has focused its efforts on an urgent need downtown area in a position funded in part by the Downtown Business Improvement District.
There is a dark undercurrent of good news for the year. The domestic portion of the $4 billion in federal aid that made so many of this year’s gains possible — including hotel accommodations for more than 200 homeless people and an emergency and social distancing shelter at Clear Hall, a vacant seminary dormitory in St. Running out next year.
But for now, Labin and her colleagues focus on the streets and the people who live there.
Does last January’s census reflect the reality you were seeing on the ground – was almost everyone in some shelter?
I think as a society we never really know every single person out there, because there are people sleeping in abandoned buildings, in moving cars. There are people we can’t find, but we are very good at what we do, and we have a lot of partners who help us keep our eyes off the people who need help.
Last winter we saw a record low, and a lot of it has to do with our homeless system – the shelters, the Department of Health – the partnership to try to create different, unique safe places for people to be off the streets, socially distant.
What have you seen since then? How does this year look?
We see a regular increase in the spring. This year, it’s not so early, but in the past four to six weeks [September through mid-October]We’re seeing an increase in people on the streets, in cars, in parks, under bridges, things like that.
How big a factor were the COVID emergency measures?
With the suspension of the expulsion valid for as long as it exists [through late August], I don’t think we yet know how that will affect the numbers. We’ll definitely continue to see them rising, which worries us all as we head into cooler weather.
Have additional services from CARES Act – hotel coupons, Clare Hall – raised the standards for how to combat homelessness?
What the pandemic has forced us to do is not sustainable for us as a system with regular funding sources and regular members. The type of emergency hotels comes down to the issue of funding. We didn’t want to spend all the money, and then everyone would be thrown out into the street if we didn’t find something else for them. As of April 1, [we] It did not accept any new admissions into the emergency hotel voucher programs and essentially protected the status of these individuals there and continued to work with them on plans either to move to something else or to move into their own permanent residence. But we needed to make sure we could afford that, so people wouldn’t have to go back to the street.
The main challenge is that in the end, there is not enough affordable housing, so for the financing we have, we don’t want to put it into people’s short-term options; We want to put him in long-term options. I think that’s the balance our system always has to try to strike: How many emergency shelter beds can we provide, while still having permanent housing options for people who may not be able to afford their own place?
Your role is so much more on the front lines and the emergency side of things, so seeing that balance must be challenging.
It is very difficult. The honest truth is that people want to get off the streets, but they are more than that, “Yeah, but I need housing.” Some people never accept shelter – they want to go directly from the street to the housing. It’s cool and beautiful when that happens, but I don’t have an apartment [available] To guide people to every day.
I think our system with everyone working together does a good job. There are almost no shelter beds that are not used on a daily basis because we all work together to identify the people who need them most – then the backups, so that if we can’t get to that person or if they eventually refuse for whatever reason, we go and look for next person. Because it is such a valuable resource.
I have sometimes mentioned that people resist getting the help available. What are some of the obstacles they face in getting emergency help?
Obviously there can be as many obstacles as people are, but I think what I see a lot may just be feeling insecure or uncomfortable. They are asked to make the decision to suddenly live with a group of people they have never met before. It can be such a difficult environment because the people there are in a desperate situation. There is clearly a history of trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse. All of these things can get in the way because in order to help people feel safe – guests and employees – they need some kind of structure and rules, and these things can also be barriers.
This is where your turn comes in, and establish a one-to-one connection to try and help them.
It’s a huge part of what I do, and probably the hardest part for people to understand because most of us happily settle in, and we can’t imagine refusing to help, if we were in this situation.
The key is to be consistent and consistent. We don’t have to give up, we have to keep showing up for the people. And just keep checking in, so they know we’re here for them. The day they want to say yes, we want to make sure we’re there. There are some people who if I see them walking and sitting anywhere, I stop and jump and talk to them, even if it’s five minutes, because it’s not easy to find everyone.
Obviously, the main key is empathy. People can tell if you’re really interested or when you’re kind of doing your job. Thus, being able to let them know that we really care, really want to help, is key as well.
And making sure we’re listening. Sometimes their priority is not mine. I need to make sure I hear from them what is most important to them, what worries them most, and then help them with that thing. Even if it seems trivial to me, I need to make sure I really really meet them where they are and help them with the thing that bothers them the most.
Often, that’s where harmony begins. They notice that you heard them, they notice that you’re trying to help them with this thing, and if it works, that’s great. Then, occasionally, the door opens wide.
This summer, I had the privilege of helping two men move from the street to a condo, and this was their first apartment. They were both in their fifties, and it was their first apartment they kept themselves.
This must be very satisfying.
Sure, but I think it’s important for people to know if you tell me someone is homeless, I’m going to go there — well, me or a co-worker or another teammate — and we’re going to talk to that person. But I think people often expect that they will get help right away. It is never that easy, and this is where awareness and empathy from the community come in handy, because even if they wanted shelter, there might not be space right away. We may prioritize someone who is over 70 or under 30, or has some type of physical health problem. But that doesn’t mean we don’t help. All of our services are voluntary; We can’t force anyone to accept help, so we really have to make them want to work with us.
Our focus is and should be: What is the quickest way for you to get housing, how can we solve this problem for you permanently? Don’t get me wrong, we always provide snacks and supplies like this, but that’s not our focus. We want people to be safe on the street, but we don’t try too hard to make people comfortable. We want them to get in, of course, because that should be the point at the end – on their way, when they’re ready.
Are there enough resources to bring everyone who is on the streets, couch skating, or in a shelter into a dorm? Is zero an attainable goal now in Milwaukee?
I want to say yes I am forever optimistic. But it feels impossible. Our system, in accordance with federal requirements, must give priority to people on the street or in the shelter. We already have programs to prevent evictions and prevent homelessness, but the priority remains people who are already homeless, so we can’t arrest everyone.
And if I could have everything I wanted on my Christmas list this year, it would be affordable lodging. There will not be enough housing vouchers for everyone who needs one and qualifies for one. I feel like our society needs to get creative in making sure that rents are safe, that it provides adequate housing and shelter, but it can also be provided to people who live, you know, on Social Security and things like that.
And we can’t end homelessness without landlord partners, so we need people who are empathetic and willing to give people a chance, even if they end up homeless due to eviction – allowing us to work with them and try to support them and help them succeed in housing.