Shelters remain safe thanks to collaboration, quick thinking 

A highly contagious virus whose spread is accelerated by close contact and whose impact is most severely impacting disadvantaged communities – Milwaukee’s homeless shelters could have been overrun by COVID-19, but instead, they’ve remained incredibly safe spaces for their staff and guests. The reason doesn’t defy logic, rather, it is the result of significant foresight and heightened collaboration that bridged multiple civic sectors.

Milwaukee’s City and County health and housing leaders recognized early on in the outbreak the added risk faced by community members experiencing homelessness or domestic violence. They knew they needed to relieve the burden on communal shelters since social distancing precautions and ease of disease transmission certainly meant an inability to serve at full capacity, but the solutions were going to require creativity and collective effort.

Fortunately, strong existing relationships among nonprofit providers and government agencies combined with the innovation and urgency of the MKE Civic Response Team led to a response that continues to support the health and safety of Milwaukeeans today.

Sights on new sites

Key to the strategy was finding alternate housing options at the scale needed to decompress the shelters. One answer was both unexpected and welcome. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee had just closed a convent called Clare Hall and approached Milwaukee County Housing Administrator Jim Mathy regarding its use. Due to the strong partnership between the city and county – plus the work of 18 Wisconsin National Guard members – the site was functioning within a couple of weeks as temporary housing capable of accommodating individuals with COVID-19 symptoms.

Several hotels also agreed to help shelter those in need, including Days Inn, Hampton Inn and the Ambassador Inn Hotel. 

“Many around the country struggled to partner with hotels,” said Rafael Acevedo, who leads the city’s Continuum of Care program and co-leads the MKE Civic Response Team’s housing and shelter team with Nicole Angresano of United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County. “The preconceptions of working with this population were real, but thankfully, we experienced true public-private partnership. It helped sustain the economies of the hotel partners while getting the space needed for the community. In conversations with folks, they’ve been very appreciative of being able to stay there.”

But even once sites were secured, supplies and other resources were still needed. That’s when the MKE Civic Response Team really shined. Leveraging the vast network of relationships of those involved, the Team was able to pool resources and procure a range of essential items from pillows and linens to hygiene products and cleaners. They developed solutions for providing food, distributing personal protective equipment and administering coronavirus tests when needed.

The additional sites allowed shelters to reduce their occupancy by up to two-thirds, reducing the risk of COVID spread. Longer-term benefits are also emerging.

“Folks are not only getting shelter,” Acevedo said, “they are also getting case management, so they can continue to meet their needs and move forward toward housing solutions.”

So far, the team has helped 60 individuals transition into permanent housing.

Sustaining the coordination

For partners in the civic response, the success demonstrates what is possible.

“We should be doing this kind of work all the time, not just reacting to a crisis,” Angresano said. “For people who are homeless, it’s always like COVID. There’s always a hurricane. We should be able to do this faster and better, period. We can continue this collaboration and making strategic decisions in philanthropy for lasting change.”

The United Way’s COVID-19 Urgent Needs Fund and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s MKE Responds Fund continue to provide support across a variety of relief and recovery efforts, and resources are coordinated with those from the state and federal government for maximum impact.

As community needs evolve, the housing and shelter team is turning focus to such priorities as aligning resources to prevent evictions and providing mobile phones and wireless service to shelter residents to bridge the digital divide.

Return to COVID-19 home

Learn more

Our Donor Resources – COVID-19 page offers information and tools for Foundation donors who want to help.