County’s Homeless Program A Success
Based on national model, which found providing housing actually saves money.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve seen a pretty significant reduction.”
Collins-Dyke, who has a professional background as a social worker, is outreach services manager with Milwaukee County Health and Human Services’ housing division. He has received a number of accolades over the years, including being named to the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Advocate of the Year award in 2014.
In the past two years, much of his effort has been directed toward Housing First, a program tailored to the county’s chronically homeless population.
As the National Alliance to End Homelessness notes, studies have found the Housing First approach saves money: One study found an average cost savings on emergency services of $31,545 per person housed in a Housing First program over the course of two years. Another showed that a Housing First program could cost up to $23,000 less per consumer per year than a shelter program.
In Milwaukee County’s program, once the homeless have a place to live, specialists work with them on a case-by-case basis and try getting at the root causes of their homelessness.
Collins-Dyke, beaming with enthusiasm as he discusses the program, calls it a “no-brainer” to bring this approach to Milwaukee County. Attempting to address a person’s needs without first ensuring he or she has a stable place to live has proven an uphill battle in the past.
Statistics show Housing First has put a dent in the county’s homeless population. According to the Institute for Community Alliances, 1,521 persons across Milwaukee County were homeless at least one night in 2015. Today, Collins-Dyke pegs that figure somewhere in the range of 900 to 925 persons.
“It’s probably the most dramatic decrease we’ve seen,” Collins-Dyke says. “The figures were stagnant before (2015).”
The county has set some lofty goals to eradicate chronic homelessness. County Executive Chris Abele, who created Collins-Dyke’s position amid a broader campaign pledge to reform and redesign the county’s mental health system, has announced a goal of serving 300 homeless persons through Housing First.
To date, more than 200 chronically homeless persons have been placed in residences through Housing First. Retention rates during the past two years of the rollout have stood at 99 percent, according to county figures.
The Housing First strategy was first used in the mid-1990s in New York City and has been replicated in a number of disparate urban centers across the U.S.
Collins-Dyke says Milwaukee County version of this increasingly popular approach is unique in one way. Few governments take such a prominent role in implementing the program.
“We’ve been progressive in that way,” he says.
Collins-Dyke says partnerships have been the backbone of Housing First’s impact on the county’s overall homeless population the past several years. Notably, the City of Milwaukee has been an important part of the program. The city’s housing authority has worked in tandem with the housing division at the county level.
But a raft of advocacy groups have also assisted Collins-Dyke and others within the health and human services department of carrying out the goals of Housing First.
The list of partner organizations includes 2-1-1, The Cathedral House, Center for Veterans Issues, Community Advocates, Grand Avenue Club, The Guest House, Hope House, Milwaukee Police Department, Path Finders, Salvation Army, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County.
Looking ahead, Collins-Dyke said he and others are optimistic — but cautiously so — about the continued rollout of Housing First. Federal and state funding, he notes, have been an important part of the program. If contributions are reduced, its effectiveness could wane.
“But we feel very good about where we are right now,” Collins-Dyke says.