MILWAUKEE—John “Grizzly” Affayroux had been living outside for 24 years when a friend drove up to his shack by the Kinnickinnic River a couple months ago and told him he could get a free apartment.
At first he didn’t believe it. His friend said Milwaukee County was putting homeless people into permanent apartments, not shelters. And unlike most housing programs, there were no hoops to jump through—you didn’t have to stay sober or have a clean criminal record or even agree to see a counselor.
So Affayroux signed up and filled out some paperwork. And now he has his own one-bedroom, ground-floor apartment: spacious and very messy, with clothes and blankets and food scattered around. But it’s his. “I’m getting a second chance,” he told me, sitting on a donated couch with a big American flag above him. “It took a while to get used to.” He looks exactly like what you’d expect for someone nicknamed Grizzly: a long, scraggly grey beard, stained blue overalls, and an oversized brown pullover.
Affayroux, 60, is one of dozens of formerly homeless people who have benefited from the county’s aggressive push to end chronic homelessness. Since September, officials have been giving permanent housing vouchers to anyone who’s been homeless for more than a year or on multiple occasions in the past couple years.
“The biggest need for a homeless person is housing,” said James Mathy, the county’s housing administrator. “We just offer them housing right off the street. It sounds simple, but a lot of communities don’t do it.”
The program, called Housing First, follows similar efforts in Salt Lake City, Seattle, and other cities around the country. Research has shown that permanent vouchers are more effective and, in the long run, more cost-efficient than the typical approach of sending homeless people to shelters or giving them temporary rental assistance. People in the program contribute 30% of their income toward the rent. Most, like Affayroux, don’t have a job, so they get free housing. They're placed into regular apartment buildings around the city, and the landlord receives the same rent they would from any other tenant, except from vouchers.
So far, Milwaukee’s program has found housing for 64 people, some who have been living outside for decades. Officials estimate that there are about 300 chronically homeless people in the county. Everyone has a different story about how they ended up on the streets. Affayroux lost a job working for the local parks department in the '90s and ended up living under bridges, by railroad tracks, and eventually in a riverside eight-foot-by-four-foot wood-and-tarpaulin shack he built himself. He spiraled into alcoholism. “I went off the deep end,” he said.
A cop he knew told him about the Housing First program a few months ago, and he moved into the apartment October 1. “I just got tired of being out there,” he said. He likes that he doesn’t have to worry about getting robbed or beat up or “taking a shit in the woods,” and that he can shower whenever he wants. He also has a fully stocked kitchen—at a recent church Thanksgiving meal, he ate one serving and took three home with him.
Beyond housing, Milwaukee's program also offers clients case managers who help them apply for benefits and find individualized treatment. Many residents suffer from mental health issues, but there’s no requirement that they go through any specific treatment programs. The case managers also help them navigate the mundane challenges that come with living between four walls, from doing laundry to getting a toilet fixed to dealing with noisy neighbors.
Robert Itzin, 53, was in and out of shelters for years before he moved into an apartment with the program in early October. It’s clean and simple, with bare white walls, beige carpeting, and a couple chairs and tables from friends and family. He stacks his book collection on the windowsill.
Itzin’s problems started after he got divorced and lost his job within a few weeks in 2012. He started using cocaine and couldn't stop.
He's still struggling to fight addiction. “I mean, I used on Monday night,” he said. That’s an admission that would get him kicked out of housing in many government programs. But Luke Rosynek, a bearded young Housing First coordinator sitting next to him, barely batted an eye. “You already have people in your building that use drugs and drink and do all sorts of weird stuff,” Rosynek said. “Why should you be held to this kind of standard that none of us are?”
That’s the point—instead of punishing people for not being perfect right away, the program gives them a safe place to live while they’re working on their issues and figuring out their life. Itzin, who’s tall and thin with stringy, long hair, is working part-time, contributing about a hundred bucks a month to the rent. He likes that the program isn’t patronizing, and that he’s in a walkable neighborhood with good cafés.
“This makes me feel like I’m part of humanity again, not in some marginalized class having to go back to a shelter every night,” he said. “A lot of my growing self-respect and dignity is coming from walking into an apartment building with people from all walks of life—they’re not all people going to twelve-step programs.”
The Housing First program has $2 million in funding in local and federal government money as well as private donations, enough to keep the program afloat for three years. Seen from a broader perspective, it’s saving money for the city: people who get their own apartment don't take up shelter beds and are less likely to use hospital emergency rooms or end up in a jail cell.
The next step is finding them employment or another steady source of income, with the eventual goal of weaning residents off housing vouchers entirely.
Some, like Winston Pointer, 62, say that after years on the streets they're just looking forward to a quiet retirement. Originally from Tennessee, he speaks with a drawl and a toothpick between his teeth. After his hospital job was cut, he ran out of unemployment benefits, and exhausted the last of his savings. Over the last year and a half, he stayed in shelters and alleys—during one brutal winter night outside, he nearly lost a toe to frostbite.
Today he's living in an airy apartment with hardwood floors and a good heater. With his first pension check after he moved in, he bought a big TV. And now, he's content.
"It's like heaven to me," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I haven't been this happy in years."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.