New state council puts focus on homelessness

February 13, 2018

The state on Monday quietly began a new era for addressing homelessness.

The new Interagency Council on Homelessness, chaired by Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and including the heads of eight state agencies and service providers, met for the first time Monday afternoon to get a sense of the challenges faced by a highly vulnerable population and how to better address them.

The council is seen as a centerpiece of recent Republican legislation and budget provisions on addressing homelessness. It’s seen as a way to put top officials at the table to create a more holistic approach while pursuing best practices and efficiencies.

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

“This day has been a long time coming,” Kleefisch told the 13-member council in the ornate governor’s conference room at the state Capitol. “I’m extremely enthusiastic about the work we can accomplish with this group.”

Kleefisch concluded the 90-minute session by asking the council to come back with ideas on how the state might most quickly have an impact on prevention, children and veterans, and on moving people toward employment as part of their path to housing and stability.

“The people around this table are the silo-crashers,” she said, adding that she also hopes for examples of best practices and systems that are broken.

The bill to create the council also designates a council director in the Department of Administration, with compensation up to $95,000 for the position, and the state is now moving toward a selection, Kleefisch said.

Joseph Volk, executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, which had lobbied for the council, later said, “I’m elated. No one thought this first meeting was going to solve the problem (but) you’ve got the very top levels of state government who for an hour and a half talked about homelessness.”

Hopes for increased attention to homelessness rose through 2016 and 2017 as Kleefisch made the issue a priority and the coalition offered specific policy and budget recommendations, which echoed problems raised by the Wisconsin State Journal in a nine-month project in 2016.

The challenges are daunting.

Between October 2016 and September 2017, homeless services providers in the state reported serving 20,567 people in emergency shelter and transitional housing, Adam Smith of the Institute for Community Alliances, which runs Homeless Information Management Systems for Wisconsin, told the council.

Of that sum, 42 percent were in families with minor children, 9.4 percent met the federal standard for chronically homeless, 6.5 percent were veterans and 26.5 percent were under 18, Smith said.

The homeless are everywhere, Smith said.

The state has four federally required collaborations of homeless-service providers, in Dane, Milwaukee and Racine counties, and one for the balance of the state. Smith said 27 percent of clients were served in Milwaukee County, 14 percent in Dane County, 4 percent in Racine County, and 55 percent in the rest of the state.

“It’s real,” Kleefisch said later. “And it’s all over the state.”

The council includes the superintendent of Public Instruction, the secretaries of Administration, Children and Families, Corrections, Health Services, Veterans Affairs and Workforce Development, and the executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, as well as the collaborations.

On Monday, it only began to scratch the surface of the issue, with members offering insight into current practices, challenges and opportunities

The new state budget, for example, creates a homeless services coordinator to develop a waiver to use Medicaid funds for intensive case management to help move the homeless to permanent housing, Health Services Secretary Linda Seemeyer said.

“We’re looking into what other states are doing,” she said.

Afterward, Torrie Kopp Mueller, hired last year by Madison as the Dane County Homeless Services Consortium’s first, federally funded continuum of care coordinator, said, “I think bringing people to the table is the first step. These are people who have not been to the table before.”