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State homeless advocates urge focus on prevention, housing, employment
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State homeless advocates urge focus on prevention, housing, employment


A statewide homeless advocacy group is proposing a series of measures it hopes the Legislature will take up to prevent homelessness, make housing more affordable and offer homeless individuals more job opportunities.

In a six-page paper, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness recommends providing grants to households experiencing a temporary loss of income and facing eviction; a state-based, low-income housing tax credit to attract more private investment in affordable housing; and tax credits for employers who hire the homeless with job coaching and other services.

The coalition applauded an increasing focus on Housing First, the practice of putting the chronically homeless into housing with few or no conditions and voluntary support services, and rapid rehousing, which gets homeless people into stable and permanent housing with services.

But financial literacy and consistent income are critical to maintaining housing and mitigating situations that pull people back into homelessness, the group says.

Just 34.2 percent of non-disabled adults entering the homeless services system in the state are employed, according to the State Homeless Management Information System. That number only rises to 37.2 percent after they leave the system.

“To truly end homelessness in Wisconsin, those numbers have to change,” coalition executive director Joseph Volk said. “Housing First is not enough.”

The coalition’s recommendations come amid increasing attention to the issue by state officials. The state recently adopted several of its previous recommendations, including creation of an Interagency Council on Homelessness, chaired by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch. The council, which includes the heads of eight state agencies and service providers, met for the first time last month.

The council is seen as a centerpiece of recent Republican budget provisions and legislation to address homelessness and a way to bring top officials to the table to create a more holistic approach to the problem.

Democrats and homeless advocates had pushed for more, especially in the area of funding, but the council itself won broad bipartisan support.

In 2016, the coalition also recommended:

  • An office to end homelessness. The state didn’t create the office but designated a director of the interagency council in the Department of Administration, with compensation up to $95,000.
  • Increased funding for shelters. The state provided 10 $50,000 grants to homeless shelters annually for two years to deliver intensive, employment-based case management for homeless families.
  • Funds for services. The state created a homeless services coordinator to develop a waiver to use federal Medicaid funds for homeless services.

The coalition had also pushed for more direct support for preventing homelessness and housing support services, but the state didn’t deliver major new funding, Volk said.

Overall, “I think it went very well,” Volk said, stressing that homelessness had faded from the forefront of state policy discussions for 25 years. “This is a bold next step.”

3-tiered approach

State policy makers engaged in the issue voiced interest.

“We are encouraged by our ongoing partnership with the coalition and look forward to reviewing the (Wisconsin) Hope Act,” Kleefisch spokesman Daniel Suhr said, referring to the proposal.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, a key player in the recent Republican initiatives, said, “We’ve seen some real success using a housing-first approach, so imagine what we could do once we tie employment in with it.”

Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, who supported the interagency council but pushed for more money to fight the problem, said the state must make a much deeper commitment, especially to Housing First and securing more units.

“This could be something that could be interesting as part of a bigger plan,” she said. “It’s not enough. It’s almost too politically convenient. It gives people an out.”

Specifically, the proposal calls for:

  • Prevention.
  • Funds would be directed to households when landlords file eviction actions against tenants experiencing a temporary loss of income that had been, or will shortly, be restored. It would be similar to a successful Milwaukee program in the height of the Great Recession that was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Milwaukee model, which cost about $750,000 a year, targeted households that only needed a month or two of rent support to get back on their feet, Volk said. Those with more complex challenges would still go to shelter and onto rapid rehousing with support services.
  • Housing.
  • A state-based low-income housing tax credit program, similar to the federal tax credit program administered by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, would attract more private investment. The state could also pursue social impact bonding, in which private entities invest to produce housing, usually with a nonprofit partner, and agree to performance measures to house the homeless that, if met, results in a bonus payment from the state. Support services would be funded through the soon-to-be proposed federal Medicaid waiver.
  • Employment.
  • Employers who hire the homeless would get tax credits and the employees would receive support services, such as case management related to keeping the job. The state Department of Workforce Development would contract with nonprofits for those services. The state could apply Medicaid waiver funds to some of these services.

Ideally, the same private entity could invest in housing and hire employees, Volk said. For example, Foxconn could be an investor in housing for homeless people it would employ, he said.

Emphasis on work

The coalition has no specific cost estimates for the recommendations because “there are so many ways the state could do this,” Volk said.

Steineke said he likes the idea of connecting employers with people who want to make a change in their lives and prevention — with efficient use of funds and not rewarding bad actors.

“I’d love to see the thoughts from agency secretaries on whether there are existing programs in state government we can model these after or adapt to fit our target populations,” he said. “Of course, if we need to appropriate new dollars or create a new statutory framework, the Legislature would need to be on board. Given Assembly Republicans’ dedication to this issue this session, and the broad bipartisan support we’ve already received, I would anticipate being able to make headway on additional reforms.

Kleefisch focused on the importance of employment as a pillar of an effective response.

“In short, work helps heal both emotionally and practically: It provides both pride and a path to the middle class,” she said. “As a state we must partner with stakeholders and providers to ensure that our homeless population receives access to the training and job skills necessary to make them full participants in Wisconsin’s economy. We have the infrastructure to do it, and there are jobs open every day awaiting willing workers.”

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