Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Has ‘Right To Shelter’ Initiative Worked?

Housing advocates say programs need more funding to have an impact.

Milwaukee County has launched several initiatives to help residents experiencing chronic homelessness or without access to safe housing. NNS file photo.

Milwaukee County has launched several initiatives to help residents experiencing chronic homelessness or without access to safe housing. NNS file photo.

In 2020, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors declared a “right to shelter” for all Milwaukee residents experiencing chronic homelessness or without access to safe housing.

Two years later, housing advocates say they have seen some strides but more needs to be done.

“Since the pandemic, everything has looked different,” said Wendy Weckler, the executive director of Hope House, a nonprofit housing shelter. “Because of the emergency hotels, more people who are street homeless have been willing to go in.”

Weckler cited this year’s Point-in-Time Count, which said that only 18 people were unsheltered in Milwaukee, as an example. This count provides a snapshot of homelessness at a certain point in time.

“Of course, the Point-In-Time Count happens in the middle of January, so those numbers have to come with context,” she said. “I think it’s currently closer to 100 people outside, but people are getting help and access much quicker because of how the system has been working together.”

Others have seen little impact.

“I see many people still waiting,” said MacCanon Brown, the president and CEO of the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary, a center that provides a variety of resources to people in need. “The need is bigger than we can comprehend, and it’s not necessarily countable.”

Milwaukee County also enacted a Right to Counsel pilot program also known as Eviction Free MKE, which provides no-cost legal representation for residents facing eviction or foreclosure.

Through the program, lawyers from Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and Legal Action of Wisconsin have worked from Sept.1, 2021, to March 31 with over 1,000 households to slow the pace of evictions, according to a Right to Counsel outcome report.

The report found the program had prevented evictions, helped families secure more time to move and mitigated damages in some cases.

The county also got a second-shift street outreach team, which verifies people are facing homelessness and works with them to access housing and resources.

The county supervisor who sponsored the measure two years ago, Ryan Clancy, said it has been frustrating to see his colleagues say housing and shelter are needed, then vote against measures to address those needs.

When the Right to Shelter resolution was initially declared, the board rejected three of four budget amendments aimed at putting the measure into effect.

Supervisor Jason Haas, the chairman of the county board’s finance committee, said his panel recommended rejecting the three amendments because they would have taken money away from the sheriff’s office overtime budget.

The amendments the board shot down would have:

  • Provided flexible funds for the county’s Housing Division to help residents in immediate danger of homelessness find or stay in shelter or housing.
  • Created an additional position to serve as an advocate for people with obstacles to housing who seek rental accommodations.
  • Provided funds to find ways for existing county-owned buildings to provide services to people experiencing homelessness.

Clancy also pointed to a more recent example of the county board failing to reach agreement on a proposal to create a subcommittee that would be partially made up of community members to focus on housing insecurity and to develop housing eviction prevention strategies while ensuring racial equity.

“We’ve made gains,” Clancy said. “But we owe the public more than what we’re doing. At least, we owe them a voice.”

He said with the street outreach team, the county’s housing-first strategy and the right to counsel initiative, the county is headed in a good direction.

“I want to expand the Right to Counsel to ensure the program is also focusing on foreclosures” said Clancy, who is running for state assembly. “I’d also like expand the Right to Counsel throughout the entire state.”

Resources to consult if you’re worried about your housing

Two years in, Milwaukee County’s ‘right to shelter’ initiative gets mixed reviews was originally published by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

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