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Wisconsin Housing First Coalition & Housing First Milwaukee Making Great Strides Against Chronic Homelessness; Coalition Now Forming Board of Directors

The new Wisconsin Housing First Coalition, which endorses the successful model of Housing First Milwaukee ( and hopes to spread this model across the state, recently called for nominations of individuals to serve on its first Board of Directors. The Coalition is looking for committed, energetic people from across the state of Wisconsin who wish to help further the Housing First philosophy. This philosophy is that the most effective approach to ending chronic homelessness is to provide housing first, and to then combine that housing with supportive treatment services in the areas of mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment. Housing First is a nationwide program supported by funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and with operations headquartered in cities around the country.Housing First Milwaukee is a HUD-funded program that seeks to provide housing to chronically homeless individuals and families in Milwaukee County. The HUD defines a “chronically homeless person” as “either (1) an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or (2) an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.” According to Luke Rosynek (photo), Housing Program Evaluator, Department of Health and Human Services - Housing Division, Milwaukee County, the most recent figures are that Housing First Milwaukee, launched in July 2015, is now providing housing to approximately 250 of its estimated ~300 chronically homeless individuals. This housing is typically provided in regular apartment buildings (“scattered sites”) where the landlord has made a “voucher agreement” with Milwaukee Country to house the tenant while the County, together with HUD, pay the rent.

Housing First promotes community integration, fights social isolation, and respects individual preferences. The renter is able to choose the building he or she likes most, just as any other tenant renting an apartment. Each tenant is assigned a case manager who visits regularly and helps the tenant with various needs. If the tenant is able to secure employment, he or she is obligated to pay 30% of their monthly income toward the rent.

In just over two years of operation, Housing First Milwaukee has seen just between 5 and 10 of the approximately 250 individuals housed through this innovative program, move out to non-government subsidized, independent living. Some reconnected with family, some found financial stability, and others qualified for programs outside of Housing First that met their specific health needs, Luke said.

He noted that one key to the success of the Housing First Milwaukee program is the existence of affordable housing in Milwaukee County. The nationwide HUD-funded Housing First program has seen somewhat less success in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland where affordable housing is at a much higher premium. In such cities, organizations with missions similar to that of Housing First Milwaukee are forced to build project-based supportive housing because rents in their jurisdictions are too high.

This process is expensive, slower, and does not allow the freedom of choice in neighborhood or housing stock. It is not a failure, Luke said, and these cities certainly see a lot of success, but they are limited in the scope of housing they can offer. The organizations do amazing work, he said, but they are somewhat limited by the social impact of not having affordable housing in their regions.

Luke added that he is encouraged by Wisconsin’s recent passage of legislation to fund some homeless services and he hopes that the state will continue to move forward in addressing ways to help Wisconsin's most vulnerable populations.


The Wisconsin Housing First Coalition (WI HFC) was formed in January 2017 and is intended to organize efforts to convince policy-makers and decision-makers that the Housing First model has the potential to drastically reduce homelessness and that it is the right thing to do.

Already, the WI HFC has organized an educational session for legislators at the State Capitol in Madison in March 2017 and held its first annual meeting of members in September 2017.

In speaking with Milwaukee social worker Emily Kenney, a Founding Member of the WI HFC, Street Pulse learned that the WI HFC currently has 17 individual members affiliated with 11 different homeless-related agencies. In addition to her efforts with the WI HFC, Emily is the Coordinated Entry Program Coordinator for the Homeless Service Delivery System of Milwaukee County.

Emily has witnessed the great success of the Housing First Milwaukee effort and she is dedicated to the policy advocacy work that that is now being done by the WI HFC. She noted that the WI HFC Board of Directors will have a maximum of 13 members, who, ideally, will represent the entire state of Wisconsin. Currently, the WI HFC is donation-supported. Nominations for the Board closed October 16.


The following is a description of the Housing First approach taken from the HUD web site (

“Housing First is an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment, or service participation requirements. Supportive services are offered to maximize housing stability and prevent returns to homelessness as opposed to addressing predetermined treatment goals prior to permanent housing entry.”

“Housing First emerged as an alternative to the linear approach in which people experiencing homelessness were required to first participate in and graduate from short-term residential and treatment programs before obtaining permanent housing. In the linear approach, permanent housing was offered only after a person experiencing homelessness could demonstrate that they were “ready” for housing. By contrast, Housing First is premised on the following principles:”

“Homelessness is first and foremost a housing crisis and can be addressed through the provision of safe and affordable housing. All people experiencing homelessness, regardless of their housing history and duration of homelessness, can achieve housing stability in permanent housing. Some may need very little support for a brief period of time, while others may need more intensive and long-term supports.”

“Everyone is ‘housing ready.’ Sobriety, compliance in treatment, or even criminal histories are not necessary to succeed in housing. Rather, homelessness programs and housing providers must be ‘consumer ready.’ Many people experience improvements in quality of life, in the areas of health, mental health, substance use, and employment, as a result of achieving housing. People experiencing homelessness have the right to self-determination and should be treated with dignity and respect.”

“The exact configuration of housing and services depends upon the needs and preferences of the population. While the principles of Housing First can be applied to many interventions and as an overall community approach to addressing homelessness, this [HUD] document focuses primarily on Housing First in the context of permanent supportive housing models for people experiencing chronic homelessness.”


In an August 2017 Policy & Practice magazine article on Housing First in Milwaukee County (“The Road to Zero: How Chronic Homelessness Is Ending in a Major Rust Belt Community”), authors Hector Colon, President & CEO at Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin & Upper Michigan and former Director of Health & Human Services for Milwaukee County, and Chris Abele, Milwaukee County Executive, said the following:

“Human dignity is the primary goal of Milwaukee County’s Housing First program. At the same time, fiscal responsibility, as stewards of taxpayer money, is also critical. To that end, the results we have achieved are best described as ‘jaw-dropping.’”

“The Milwaukee County Housing First program operates on a $2 million annual budget. With that investment, our analysis shows, we have reduced BadgerCare (Medicaid) costs to the State of Wisconsin by $2.1 million. We have reduced unreimbursed costs to our Behavioral Health Division (part of our own department) by more than $714,000. We have reduced the number of municipal violations among our participant group from an annual average of 240 down to 39, and with that, another half-million dollars in savings to state, county, and municipal justice expenses.”

“We have partnered with the Downtown Milwaukee Business Improvement District, the Milwaukee Police Department, and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office to refer chronically homeless individuals to us instead of making arrests on nuisance violations. Our local 2-1-1 service provider, Impact, Inc., serves as a coordinated entryway for all homeless needs in the county. The local homeless shelters have partnered with us, and expanded their mission to be full-fledged homeless service providers with case management services.”

“As for the participants themselves, 100 percent of them are participating in services to help meet their needs, including substance abuse and mental health care. It’s worth reiterating the voluntary nature of this participation.”

“Additionally, 77 percent of participants have experienced an increase in income since coming into the program. This is important because participants contribute a fixed percentage of their income toward rent. This means, the more income a participant has, the more they can contribute, and the further our taxpayer dollar goes to bringing more chronically homeless individuals into the program.”

“Twenty-seven percent of our participants have found employment.”

“Most importantly, in almost two years of the program’s history, we have had zero evictions, and 99 percent of participants remain in the program more than a year after entering. All exits have been voluntary, and remain housed. We have a Resident Advisory Council, where Housing First participants gather monthly to set real housing policy.”


The impressive progress of Housing First Milwaukee and the relatively new efforts of the Wisconsin Housing First Coalition are shining warm light on the darkness of chronic homelessness in Wisconsin. Street Pulse applauds these noble efforts and looks forward to much more progress throughout the state very soon. Street Pulse also thanks Luke Rosynek and Emily Kinney for their kind contributions to this story and salutes their wonderful efforts to help and elevate the homeless. Street Pulse was alerted to this important story by Street Pulse Executive Director Roy Jacobs.

--by Michael D. O’Neill, Street Pulse Writer,

Hector Colon and Chris Abele, “The Road to Zero: How Chronic Homelessness Is Ending in a Major Rust Belt Community,” Policy & Practice (August 2017). ( (

Emily Kenney, LCMS, a Founding Member of the Wisconsin Homeless First Coalition, Coordinated Entry Program Coordinator for the Homeless Service Delivery System of Milwaukee County.