Wisconsin’s homeless population decreased by 11.6 percent in the last year, according to an annual report conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Communities reported 5,027 individuals experiencing homelessness in the state on a single night in 2017, which is nine in every 10,000 people. There were 5,685 homeless individuals in 2016. 

The report also found veterans experiencing homelessness dropped 21 percent since 2016, and homelessness among families with children declined almost 15 percent in Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin is divided into four Continuums of Care organizations led by the HUD. The COC program is aimed at promoting communities that are committed to ending homelessness. Wisconsin Balance of State Continuum of Care represents 69 counties, with Dane, Racine and Milwaukee county having their own continuums. 

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Despite the positive change, BOSCOC director Carrie Poser said to be cautious when looking at the numbers because they don’t necessarily tell the full story. The stats, Poser said, do not show which individual counties have improved the most, for instance.

“It is not very clear, when you put out totals like that, what changes have happened and what has gone on that led to those numbers, so I often caution people from just reading that and thinking that’s the story,” Poser said.

Poser said while homelessness in the state went down overall, the most substantial change occurred in Milwaukee. Milwaukee had the biggest reduction in homelessness because they have committed a lot of money to permanent, supportive housing, Poser said.

It’s common to think the majority of state homelessness exists in Madison and Milwaukee, Poser said. But in reality, 69 percent of homelessness exists outside of those metro areas, and homelessness in these areas has not changed significantly over the past year.

The report also found, despite the overall positive statistic, the number of individuals experiencing long-term chronic homelessness increased by almost 20 percent.

In order to address homelessness in all areas of Wisconsin effectively, Poser said, the first step is thinking of homelessness as a system where jails, human services, school districts and other programs all need to be on the same page.

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“We need to stop thinking about homelessness as just a ‘we need to pay somebody’s rent and call it done,’” Poser said.  “We need to talk about it as a system, and when one [part] falters, the whole thing is going to be impacted.”

The findings come in the wake of Gov. Scott Walker’s approval last November of the creation of the Interagency Council on Homelessness. The council’s goal is to combat homelessness by working with agencies across the state.

Poser said this council is a “fantastic first step” in changing the way the state addresses homelessness. Having a top-down focus and effort will match the bottom-up effort that has been happening for years on the local level, like programs for affordable housing and prevention services to keep individuals housed, she added. 

By the end of 2018, the council hopes to have a plan to end homelessness in Wisconsin, Poser said.