Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness Releases Statewide Action Plan

The Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) released “Welcoming Wisconsin Home: A Statewide Action Plan for Homelessness 2021-2023” on February 28. The biennial action plan recommends comprehensive investments and policy reforms to increase the supply of affordable housing, secure stable housing and supportive services for people experiencing homelessness, strengthen tenants’ rights, improve the state’s homeless services infrastructure, and remedy racial inequities.

The action plan establishes six guiding principles that inform the ICH’s policy recommendations:

  1. Housing is a human right.
  2. Any future instances of homelessness should be rare, brief, and nonrecurring.
  3. Housing is the lodestone for better outcomes throughout society.
  4. Lack of available and affordable housing units is the greatest barrier to securing stable housing.
  5. Ending homelessness is inextricable from ending racial disparities in the housing market.
  6. Programs that serve people experiencing homelessness should invest sufficient resources in a Housing First strategy.

In response to the release of the statewide action plan, ICH Director Michael Basford explained that “too many Wisconsinites live with the threat of homelessness daily. We must face the challenges of homelessness head-on, and this report outlines our current reality as well as clear steps we can follow to make a difference.”

The Wisconsin legislature unanimously voted to establish the ICH in 2017. Governor Tony Evers chairs the Council, which includes representatives from the state’s four Continuums of Care as well as representatives from eight state agencies that serve people experiencing homelessness or that intersect with the homeless services system: the Department of Administration, Department of Health Services, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Children and Families, Department of Corrections, Department of Workforce Development, Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), and Department of Public Instruction.

The ICH released its first roadmap for Wisconsin’s homelessness response, a Statewide Action Plan for 2019-2022, in late 2018. Although the ICH began to implement this plan in early 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic put immense strain on the state’s homeless services system and exacerbated housing instability. The ICH decided to revisit its original three-year strategy and develop a new roadmap for 2021-2023. The new roadmap incorporates lessons learned during the pandemic.  

Racial equity is at the heart of the Statewide Action Plan. The report illuminates Wisconsin’s stark racial disparities in homelessness: Black Wisconsinites are nearly 11 times likelier than white Wisconsinites to experience homelessness. Multiracial and Indigenous Wisconsinites are about six times likelier than white Wisconsinites to experience homelessness, and Latino Wisconsinites are more than twice as likely. Although white people make up 83% of Wisconsin’s population, they account for less than 50% of people receiving homeless services. The Statewide Action Plan contextualizes these disparities within the history of systemic racism in the housing market. The legacy of redlining, racial covenants, segregation, and discrimination continue to perpetuate a two-tiered system of housing opportunities, divided along racial lines, in Wisconsin and the country generally. 

The Statewide Action Plan makes a series of policy recommendations to understand and remedy racial disparities in housing. The plan recommends that the ICH’s Racial Equity Working Group, which was established in 2020 to assess racial inequities in Wisconsin’s homelessness programs and contribute to the roadmap, remain an active body and continue to meet regularly. The report also recommends that the ICH conduct a racial equity analysis of all homelessness programming across its member agencies, report its findings to the Governor’s office, and collect data from all state-funded agencies and organizations about the communities they serve and their internal efforts to address racism. The ICH should harness racial equity analysis and ongoing data collection to make recommendations to modify existing homelessness programs in ways that advance racial equity. The racial equity section also includes recommendations to close the racial gap in homeownership, including the establishment of a “Wisconsin Restorative Housing Program” that would provide grants to homeowners for down payment assistance, mortgage assistance, and home improvement assistance.

Citing data from NLIHC’s Gap report, which shows that Wisconsin has a shortage of 119,057 units affordable and available to extremely low-income renters, the plan proposes new investments to increase affordable housing supply and connect low-income people with housing opportunities. The plan proposes a new $2 million small grant program to help landlords repair and preserve affordable housing units, a Housing Navigation Program funded with $600,000 annually to help Wisconsinites transition from homelessness into stable housing, and an expansion of the state Housing Tax Credit Program. The state Housing Tax Credit Program, established in 2018, pairs federal 4% LIHTC credits with credits allocated by WHEDA to further leverage resources for the creation and preservation of affordable housing. The plan recommends raising the state Housing Tax Credit Program limit from $42 million annually to $100 million annually and making the tax credits available over a 10-year period instead of a 6-year period, which would lead to the creation of an estimated 1,000 additional units per year. The plan also recommends that a report be made on the obstacles to low-income housing development in communities across Wisconsin.

To complement federal investments in veteran homelessness, which have cut Wisconsin’s veteran homelessness rate nearly in half over the past decade, the plan recommends a permanent “Wisconsin Housing for Heroes” veteran rental assistance program. The program would be funded with $1 million annually and would assist veterans experiencing homelessness who do not qualify for HUD-VASH. The plan also proposes a new Homelessness Diversion Program, funded at $1 million annually, that would redirect people at risk of entering emergency shelters or unsheltered homelessness to more stable alternatives.

Building on the progress of a two-year pilot program that authorized WHEDA to prioritize Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) for individuals and families on the voucher waiting list who are experiencing chronic homelessness, the plan recommends that the ICH survey Wisconsin’s 85 PHAs to determine whether they have preference standards for people experiencing homelessness and encourage them to set such preferences if they do not currently exist. The plan also encourages WHEDA to prioritize children and families experiencing homelessness in its HCV administration.

The Statewide Action Plan proposes greater integration of health care and housing resources. The plan recommends that Wisconsin submit a Medicaid state plan amendment that would allow Wisconsin Medicaid to pay for housing support services and to use the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for an initiative focused on housing stability for low-income families. The plan also suggests that Wisconsin use federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant resources to fund homeless services. 

Over the past decade, changes to landlord-tenant law in Wisconsin have shifted the balance of power away from tenants. The Statewide Action Plan lists 11 specific laws that should be reviewed by ICH – including laws that restrict the authority of local governments to impose additional requirements on landlords, laws governing eviction proceedings, and provisions that specify a landlord’s duty to make repairs – and recommends that the ICH propose legislative reforms. The report also encourages the Wisconsin legislature to consider a ban on source-of-income discrimination, which would increase housing opportunities for voucher holders. To strengthen tenants’ rights, the roadmap also recommends that Wisconsin build on Milwaukee County’s recently established Right to Counsel pilot program, create a report on the costs and potential outcomes of a statewide right to counsel, and develop a Wisconsin Legal Help website that will enable tenants to independently seek legal resources.

Many pillars of the Statewide Action Plan recommend increased resources for existing housing and homelessness programs that have proven effective but are limited in impact due to years of underfunding. These funding recommendations include:

  • an increase of $700,000 in annual funding for the State Subsidy Grant Program, which funds renovations and expansions of existing shelter facilities, conversions of existing buildings into shelter, expansion of shelter services, and operating expenses. The program is currently funded at a lower level than it was 12 years ago.
  • an increase of $1 million in annual funding for the Homeless Prevention Program, which makes grants or loans to low- and moderate-income families and prioritizes those at risk of homelessness. The program has received flat funding for more than a decade.
  • an increase of $250,000 in annual funding for the Skills Enhancement Program, which distributes grants to community action agencies. The program has a proven track record; the vast majority of those who completed the program in 2019-2020 secured a job with higher wages and health insurance.
  • an increase of $500,000 in annual funding for the Homelessness Case Management Services Program, which provides intensive case management services to families experiencing homelessness.
  • an increase of $5 million in annual funding for the Housing Assistance Program, a program that provides grants for housing and supportive services that facilitate the transition from homelessness to independent living and creates a list of activities that can be funded through the program. 

The above allocations are all proposed in Governor Evers’s most recent executive budget but will require approval in the Republican-controlled state legislature to take effect.

The statewide action plan also proposes that the ICH and its partners produce a report on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on people experiencing homelessness, including a set of recommendations to strengthen homelessness systems in the event of future pandemics or other disasters. In addition, the report outlines steps to improve data-sharing between state agencies and partner organizations and expand usage of Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data to better track the efficacy of homelessness programs. Establishing a State Homelessness Dashboard would also help monitor progress towards the action plan’s goals.

Finally, the plan includes suggestions to strengthen partnerships and bring a wider range of stakeholders into the state’s homelessness response. The plan recommends that the ICH produce a report on the potential of Social Impact Bonding to engage the private sector in developing supportive housing, convene a landlord and property manager workgroup aimed at increasing the pool of available housing for people experiencing homelessness, and create a workgroup that engages people with lived experience of homelessness to review state programs and policies. Because the challenges of addressing homelessness are not neatly divided along state boundaries, the ICH should create a regional homelessness consortium to exchange strategies with neighboring states and develop solutions for people experiencing homelessness near Wisconsin’s borders. 

Housing and homelessness advocates in Wisconsin celebrated the release of the statewide action plan, while some pointed to the need for additional strategies not discussed by the report. “WISCAP [Wisconsin Community Action Program Association] is extremely pleased that Governor Evers has forwarded a comprehensive state plan for fighting homelessness – one which recognizes housing as a human right,” said Andy Heidt, housing policy and programs manager at WISCAP. “This framework represents an appropriate and necessary organizing feature of any serious attempt to address homelessness in Wisconsin. Among other items, the Governor’s plan calls for major increases in support of emergency shelter, rental assistance for veterans, and supportive housing and services. With statewide housing costs showing significant increases, however, we are concerned that there is not enough investment in permanent affordable housing for low- and extremely low-income households. While expanded Housing First programming can help serve the needs of certain homeless individuals and families, it cannot address the larger housing crisis that underlies all forms of homelessness. As such, we require a broader definition of homelessness with corresponding mainstream affordable housing strategies. Finally, we are wary of an expansion of the use of HMIS, which can be duplicative and unintentionally impede serving people in need.”

The full statewide action plan can be found here.