State officials aim to help homeless veterans with $5 million program

June 21, 2016 GMT

In a move to reduce homelessness, state officials on Monday announced a $5 million initiative meant to support homeless veterans.

Dubbed the Welcome Home Veterans Initiative, the program, which began Monday, will help homeless veterans pay their first month’s rent, security deposits and utility bills. The project is the result of conversations between the state departments of Administration and Veterans Affairs, said Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

“These people are the best of the best. They protected us. They were entrusted to wear the uniform of the United States of America,” said Kleefisch, who has made addressing homelessness one of her priorities. “Yet some of them find themselves homeless.”

The program will use federal money diverted from a fund aimed at helping low-income people pay heating bills. Due to a mild winter, $5 million of that went unused. Kleefisch said the money would have to be used by the end of the federal fiscal year, on Sept. 30, or it would be sent back to the federal government.

She said officials toured the state Monday, making stops in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Wausau and La Crosse to promote the program. Estimates suggest there are about 2,000 homeless veterans in Wisconsin throughout the year, she said.

“We’re all just one medical disaster away from financial ruin, and that’s often what we see in circumstances like these veterans find themselves in,” Kleefisch said.

The initiative, described as using the Housing First approach, will look to help veterans gain a stable home, so they can focus on other parts of their lives, she said.

It’s important to get veterans into permanent housing, Kleefisch said, because they are disproportionately affected by homelessness and can often struggle with physical disabilities, mental health problems and substance dependency — problems that can be best addressed after the person is under a roof.

Any possibility of appropriating more money to continue the initiative beyond September depends on how many people it reaches and its effectiveness, she said.

“We hope that people are excited about the potential help that this program can offer folks, and then we’ll see how it goes,” Kleefisch said.

Department of Administration spokesman Steve Michels said in an email that officials will use lists from the Institute for Community Alliances, a homeless nonprofit advocacy organization, to identify homeless veterans to help.

He said the goal is to reach all homeless veterans in the state. To be eligible, a veteran must present an ID to their county veterans service office, Michels said.

Each individual can receive $5,000 in assistance from the program, Kleefisch said.

In a recent interview for the State Journal’s ongoing project, Homeless in Madison | A City Challenged, she said to “stay tuned” about possible initiatives by the state to address homelessness. When asked if any other programs were in the works, she said she will continue to stay passionate about the topic and continue learning about new ideas and solutions.

A hotline number, 866-432-8947, has been set up for veterans looking to get assistance from the program.