It Takes a Community to House the Homeless

54842417E 54842422EEvery night at 7 pm, a line of men and women carrying duffel bags and backpacks slowly moves forward as the doors are opened at a congregate homeless shelter in downtown Eau Claire. Many of these homeless individuals have been in line for well over an hour; earlier they took shelter at the public library, restaurants or social service businesses nearby.

This shelter, like many others in Wisconsin, provides the traditional “two hots and a cot” to thousands of people each year. An evening meal, a night of shelter and breakfast are provided and then everyone is back out on the streets during the day. While these services are desperately needed and definitely appreciated, it has become evident that traditional homeless shelters alone cannot solve the problem of homelessness.
Starting in 2015, Western Dairyland Economic Opportunity Council, Inc. is proud to offer Permanent Supportive Housing to chronically homeless individuals and families in Eau Claire County. Permanent Supportive Housing is based upon the Housing First approach—a homeless individual’s primary need is stable housing, so we will provide housing first, without conditions based upon sobriety, mental health treatment, lack of employment, or other issues.

Homeless clients are given an assessment by a case manager, and those who are deemed most vulnerable are placed directly into apartments. The apartments are not all in one location, but spread throughout the community to help clients reintegrate more quickly. Once housing is provided, a case manager works with the clients in the areas of mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment.

To some it may seem counterintuitive—to provide housing to those who haven’t “earned it” by their participation in rehabilitative and self-sufficiency programs. By utilizing evidence-based screening tools, we are able to determine the best type of support and housing intervention for individuals and families. Providing housing first takes the strain off of hospitals, jails, churches and social service organizations that provide a patchwork of shelter for the homeless community.

Our first client, Michael, was placed in an apartment after being homeless for the past six years. During those years he spent many nights in traditional homeless shelters, jail, or bouncing between houses of friends and acquaintances. He also spent many nights at the Emergency Room and the Inpatient Behavioral Health Unit at a local hospital. Michael’s nights at the hospital were frequent and the staff knew him well—when he stopped showing up, they became worried for his well-being and were relieved to read about his new apartment and the Housing First program in the local newspaper.

Western Dairyland’s Housing First program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), will provide long-term housing for nine individuals and six families. Furniture, housewares and cleaning supplies for the apartments are being donated by community members and local businesses.

Submitted by Anna Cardarella, Executive Director of Western Dairyland EOC, anna.cardarella@wdeoc.org, 715-985-2391