Tent City A Result of Public Policy
Tent City residents need resources not currently available to them, not destruction of their camp.
Over that last few years we have heard numerous public pronouncements that said that homelessness in Milwaukee County would soon be a thing of the past. Didn’t you hear the County Executive and his staff say so? Didn’t they say that Milwaukee was going to be the first large city in the country to end homelessness? Wrong! That is not what you heard. If you listened carefully you would have heard them talking about ending “chronic homelessness”
Why is this distinction important? Because the people in the current “tent” encampment are the wrong kind of homeless. They are not the chronically homeless targeted by federal policy. They do not meet specific criteria needed to qualify as chronically homeless which means there are few resources to deal with a tent city that should be socially unacceptable.
In recent years, tent encampments that sprung up in Milwaukee were mitigated by Milwaukee County Housing Staff who were able to rapidly respond with a variety of services, including federal rent vouchers.
Close attention to the public comments of County Housing Staff indicate that the group of people inhabiting the tent encampment are administratively harder to serve since the occupants do not meet specific criteria. When one hears phrasing like; “this could be trickier to solve because these people are newly homeless” or, “these people have been homeless for less than six months”; the indication is that there is not much that can be done to assist the tent occupants; so short of forcefully dispersing the camp – there they will stay.
So how did we get here? Where did this construct called “chronically homeless” originate? Well, it’s an invention of the Federal Government. In the early 2000’s the Federal government, which is by far the largest funder for homeless services, decided to focus homeless funding to the chronically homeless who were defined as a person who is disabled and has been homeless continually for at least one year or has been homeless four times in the last three years. (it should be noted that federal bureaucracy then produced a 104-page manual to tell providers how to determine if someone was the right kind of homeless and thus eligible for services)
It was theorized that while this part of the population made up only 10% of homeless, this small percentage used 80% of the resources. This group, almost exclusively single men (with a small percentage of single women), had chronic mental health issues and/or were abusing or addicted to alcohol/drugs, resulting in becoming frequent users of hospital emergency rooms and repeat occupants of jail cells. This small percentage of homeless people also utilized the preponderance of homeless and other social service resources.
Thus, the Federal Government directed that Milwaukee County housing resources and specifically, nearly all of Milwaukee annual $11 million allocation, be directed specifically to individuals that met a narrow definition of chronic homeless. When advocates made the logical query; “What about the other 90% of the homeless population; especially families with children?”; everyone was told to be patient and once chronic homelessness was eliminated, funding would be made available to assist the remaining 90%. Many homeless advocates believe that the federal strategy was really to define the nation’s homeless problem as much smaller than it really is and to define it around a population, the disabled homeless, for whom many more resources are available. In this way the homeless problem was cast as smaller than it really was and allowed the federal government to more easily show success in reducing the number of homeless people.
That has been the “set in stone” policy for two decades. The reality is that most of the federal money, including that allocated to Milwaukee County, is directed to housing vouchers and services that provide funding only to the chronically homeless. In order for that group to maintain their housing, and not become homeless again most available funds have been allocated to the chronically homeless and there is little to spare for other purposes.
As a consequence, very little existing money will be available even if chronic homelessness is eliminated. Barring a large increase in funding for homeless programs at the federal level, there will NEVER be sufficient resources to meet the needs of the remaining 90% of homeless persons, families and children. The current policy is deceitful since there was never any intention to provide sufficient funds to meet the needs of homeless individuals and families. In subsequent years, it became apparent to caregivers and agencies that they were misled.
There was not to be any additional or left-over funds directed to the 90%.
Which brings us back to Milwaukee’s tent encampment. Recently Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl wrote an article about the tent population near downtown Milwaukee. He followed a local film maker who has a background in studying and analyzing issues surrounding the status of homelessness.
The filmmaker had harsh words regarding the efforts of local groups, such as the Street Angels, who provide tents and other supports. Her rationale is that offering resources makes the group complicit in supporting the encampment as well as an unhealthy lifestyle for its occupants. Her assertion is that rather than tents, the residents need to have access to and a connection with services and resources that will eliminate the need to live in a tent.
What she does not understand is that those resources are not available for the current residents of the tent city because they are not the chronically homeless. Nor does she realize that shelters are full and under-funded and other homeless services are stretched to their limit dealing with individuals who meet a very prescribed and narrow definition of being chronically homeless. Thank goodness for groups like the Street Angels and others who unencumbered by government red tape are truly trying to meet the basic needs of all the homeless.
The result of this misguided federal policy and Milwaukee’s blind adherence to it is that there are FEW IF ANY resources for the 90% of homeless individuals, families and children who do not meet the specific definition of chronic homelessness.
So, what can be done?
- First, Milwaukee’s leaders and homeless advocates need to embrace the Federal Homeless Family and Youth Act which would increase Federal funding for the 90% of Milwaukee’s homeless population who do not fit the definition of chronically homeless.
- Second, while the Milwaukee County Executive is to be lauded for making the end of chronic homelessness a policy priority and for investing in programs that have reduced the number of chronically homeless persons in Milwaukee, the reality is that the Mayor of Milwaukee has been absent on this issue. In 2012, the local administration of Federal homeless funding was transferred from a private non-profit to the City of Milwaukee. The expectation was that the Mayor would chair a consortium consisting of government representatives, businesses, health care providers, and nonprofit and philanthropic leaders to tackle the issue of homelessness. It never happened. He never showed up.
- Third, the County Executive and Mayor should follow the example of Wisconsin’s Governor Evers, and establish an inter-agency council on homelessness. That group should consist of high-ranking government staff and following the Governor’s example, the County Executive and the Mayor should co-chair the council. The council should look for creative solutions to serve all Milwaukee’s homeless not just the sliver of the population currently being served.
Okay, so that’s what should happen. What I predict will happen is that with no resources to solve the current problem the encampment will grow. Business leaders will start to become concerned. City government and downtown business leaders will start to talk about the dangerousness of the encampment, the lack of hygiene, alcohol/drug use, and the need to disperse the homeless for their own good and safety. The City will then by force, bulldoze the encampment and compel the occupants to disburse. A public service will have been done!
One can only hope that they will be allowed to take their tents!
Joseph Volk is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Coalition to End Homelessness. WCAH advocates for policies which serve all of Wisconsin’s homeless population.