Q&A: Michael Basford on Homelessness in Wisconsin

Q&A: Michael Basford on Homelessness in Wisconsin

Before the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, 4,500-5,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Wisconsin. Although the point-in-time count for 2021 is lower than that of previous years, the State of Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness reported that this is likely an undercount because the pandemic led to a lower number of volunteers for the count and an increase in the number of unsheltered people. Chronic homelessness also rose from 611 in 2020 to 669 in 2021, constituting an increase of more than 10 percent.


A new program offered by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services provides housing support to families with children and low-income pregnant women experiencing homelessness. It offers housing consultation services that aid in developing a plan to help families and individuals secure and maintain stable housing, access to health care, child care, transportation and transitional support during the moving process. 


The program is the first of its kind in the nation and has been met with approval by some local officials working to solve the issue of homelessness. Michael Basford is one such official. He has been the director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness since May 2019. I spoke to Basford in order to understand more about the insights he has gained through his work.


Can you tell me about your work on homelessness so far? 

I've been in this job since May of 2019, when I was appointed by Gov. Evers. Prior to that I was associate director at Housing Initiatives Inc., and I did that job for 13 years. Housing Initiatives provides permanent support and housing for people who are experiencing homelessness and also have severe mental illness diagnoses. In the 13 years that I worked there, I helped put about 400 people into housing. Before that I was an affordable housing advocate and activist, and I'd been doing that for about 20 years.


November was National Homelessness Awareness Month — what do you think is the most important thing Wisconsinites should know about homelessness and homeless people?

Well, if anybody still believes that homelessness is simply a Madison or a Milwaukee issue in Wisconsin, then they should know that we have people experiencing homelessness in all 72 counties in the state. Regardless of whether it's urban, suburban or rural, it is something that's happening in almost every community. Everybody has dreams for themselves, things that they want to do with their lives and with these folks that are experiencing homelessness something just went very, very wrong. You can't lump all people that are experiencing homelessness into categories of them not wanting to work, making bad lifestyle decisions, having untreated mental health or addiction issues or anything like that. Everybody's story is very unique in how they got to where they are at this moment, but it really is a hole that is very hard to get out of once you fall into it.


What is a case that you’ve worked on that would help people understand the complexity of the issue of homelessness?

I think it would probably be good if I told you three stories. The first was a man who is now in his 60s who I helped house when I was working at Housing Initiatives. He had a job and his own house, but then his wife died. He went into this mental health spiral and ended up losing the job, the house, everything, and he’d been living in a van for 15 years when I met him. The transformation after he was housed was incredible, and he’s still housed now, 16 years later, and I’m still in touch with him.


The second case involved this man and his wife who had been living under a bridge on John Nolen Drive for years. He was a Vietnam veteran, and near the end of his second tour of duty he punched his commanding officer during an altercation. He received a dishonorable discharge, which has followed him around since and prevented him from getting a job. It also made him ineligible for the HUD-Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing program, so I had to wait until I had an opening in my federal voucher program to get him and his wife into housing. We succeeded in doing that and he lived there for about three years before he died. But he died in his own home, and even though it's sad that he died, at the very least he was able to die in a way that a lot of us would consider a little more sweet than bitter.


The third one was a gentleman I met sleeping in one of the parks. He has a cognitive issue and within a couple of months he had lost both his mother and brother, who he used to live with. He had nobody to support him and made his way to Green Bay, sleeping outdoors until we were able to assist him.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

You know, we will be paying for homelessness one way or another. I always like to say: we can pay for it up front by housing people, or we could pay for it on the back end with a whole range of societal outcomes that are negative. Housing is the lodestone for community outcomes. If you want crime to go down, invest in housing. If you want your kids' test scores to improve in school, invest in housing. If you own a business and want to be able to hire the best employees, you need to invest in housing. I can say it all day long — if you want your linens to stay fresher longer, invest in housing. If you want your teeth to be whiter, invest in housing. Everything just really flows from that. I think that we got some really usable lessons out of the pandemic about all of this. How we use those lessons, whether or not we even use those lessons, that's going to depend on the leaders that we have. That’s the long and the short of it.


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