Improving Services

Housing the Homeless
Chronic homelessness is an issue that affects hundreds of people in Milwaukee County. An ambitious new approach led by County Executive Abele and community partners aims to end chronic homelessness by 2018.

The plan moves the County from the traditional approach of providing short-term subsistence through shelter beds to empowering the chronically homeless by providing permanent housing. A chronically homeless individual or family has either experienced homelessness for one year or longer or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness over the past three years. Instead of the traditional approach of providing short-term help through shelter beds, this plan empowers the chronically homeless by providing housing that is permanent.  Permanent housing is demonstrated to yield better outcomes for the chronically homeless and the community-at-large.

This initiative focuses on a dramatic expansion of the Housing First concept.  Housing First is based on the concept that a homeless individual or family’s first and primary need is to obtain stable permanent housing.  Other household needs are addressed once housing is obtained.  National data shows that this model provides successful outcomes and significantly reduces public service costs. 

On June 9th, 2015, County Executive Abele and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett met at Thurgood Marshall apartments to unveil the new plan.  The collaborative partnership will invest about $1.8 million to end chronic homelessness, including $600,000 from the City of Milwaukee, $300,000 from the City of Milwaukee Housing Authority, $50,000 from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and other public and private funds.

The first Housing First clients signed leases and began moving into their own apartments during July 2015.  Once the program began, 64 people were placed in homes within the first 75 days of the program, and more individuals are beginning the process of choosing housing and being assigned case management. 

“In the last four years we took the difficult steps of improving our fiscal condition and reducing our debt and borrowing costs of the County,” said County Executive Abele.  “The reason we took those steps was to create the capacity to tackle Milwaukee’s big issues in a substantive way.  I’m proud to say that the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Milwaukee County does just that.”

Reforming the Mental Health System
 One of County Executive Abele’s top priorities since taking office has been to improve and reform the mental health care system in Milwaukee County.  The goal is to shift from an outdated, institutional setting to a person-centered, recovery oriented approach that provides more dignity and better outcomes for individuals with long-term care needs.  While this transition has been occurring around the country for many years, County Executive Abele jumpstarted the process in Milwaukee. 

Since 2011, we have ended a 100-year history of institutionalization of persons with mental illness and closed long-term care.  This is the right thing to do, provides more dignity, produces better outcomes, and is a more efficient and effective service delivery model. Some of the major strides that have been made in the areas of customer service as well as governance of the Behavioral Health Division include:

  • Expanding the County’s Crisis Mobile Team to respond to calls from midnight to 7:00 a.m. The Team works with law enforcement officials to ensure that emergencies involving individuals with mental illness are handled in a safe, supportive, and healthy way.

  • Opening a Behavioral Health Crisis Center as a welcoming place for adults experiencing a psychiatric crisis to receive intervention services. Crisis Resource Centers are community-based alternatives to emergency rooms.

  • Hiring a Behavioral Health Prevention Coordinator who works to reduce and prevent drug abuse, particularly among people with mental illness. The Coordinator worked with the City of Milwaukee to organize a five-County summit to unite efforts combating the heroin epidemic.

  • Establishing a peer-run recovery center to provide a low-pressure environment for education, recreation, socialization, pre-vocational activities, and occupational therapy opportunities for people experiencing severe and persistent mental illness or co-occurring disorders.

  • Creating a Mental Health Court as a pilot program in 2014. The court is a problem-solving court that combines judicial supervision with community mental health treatment and other supportive services to reduce criminal activity and improve the quality of life for its participants.

  • Creating a highly successful Community Linkages and Stabilization Program (CLASP) program that promotes recovery in the community by assigning peer specialists to people who are being discharged from the Behavioral Health Hospital

  • Expanding the internationally recognized Wraparound Milwaukee program that provides a unique system of care for children with serious emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs

  • Implemented electronic medical records at the Behavioral Health Division to help staff manage inpatient, outpatient, and substance abuse programs

  • Transitioning over 150 individuals with co-occurring mental illness and intellectual disabilities out of a long-term care unit (Hilltop) and into community living arrangements

We have invested over $20 million of new or enhanced community-based investments in the last five years that have led to dramatic results:

  • Psychiatric inpatient admissions have been reduced by 50 percent

  • Emergency room visits have decreased by 20 percent

  • Emergency detentions have decreased by 30 percent

  • Acute Adult Inpatient Service 30-day readmission rates have decreased by 22 percent

  • Acute Adult inpatient admissions has decreased by 47 percent

  • We have added over 100 certified peer specialists in our continuum of services

County Executive Abele also pushed for a number of changes to state law to further improve the system.  One of those changes was the creation of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Care Board in 2014.  Now the governing body on mental health care issues in Milwaukee County, the Mental Health Board’s creation ensures that decisions on mental health policy are made by medical professionals and management experts who have the experience and expertise to make good decisions about how to care for people with mental illness.

BHD is also adding a new layer of service by providing prevention services within the community, including follow-up with patients after hospital discharge and connecting patients to outpatient services.  A new service will be added to the Crisis Mobile Team to provide enhanced crisis prevention services, post-acute community-based strategies, and mobile peer services. 

BHD is also planning a $1.2 million north side development that includes placement of community-based mental health and substance abuse services for adults as well as mental health services for children.  The idea behind the new structure is to place services in a more centrally located site within the community.  BHD hopes to include services such as Crisis Mobile Team, Crisis Line, adult care coordination, a Wraparound Medication Clinic, and other services in the new location. 

"One of the turnarounds I’m most proud of in the past five years has been at the Behavioral Health Division. What I inherited was an outdated, dysfunctional model that failed to deliver the best possible services for our most vulnerable residents," County Executive Abele said. "Today, we are providing care that empowers people to fully participate in society and live safer, healthier lives. And in addition to better outcomes for the people we serve, these better services actually cost taxpayers less money."

Bringing Families Together Through Child Support
Since County Executive Abele took office in 2011, Milwaukee County Child Support Services (CSS) has undergone a dramatic transformation. 

Child support is a significant source of income for millions of children in the U.S.  Nationally, child support payments typically comprise about 40 percent of poor custodial families’ household income.  In Milwaukee, where three in ten adults and over 40 percent of children live in poverty, child support plays a critical role in reducing the poverty rate and improving financial security for low-income families. 

Child support collection also increases the involvement of noncustodial parents in children’s lives and improves family relationships.  Studies have shown that fathers who pay child support are more likely to visit their child, to see their child more frequently, and affect how their child is raised.  Research has also demonstrated that child support has a positive effect on academic achievement and improves cognitive development in children. 

One of CSS’s most innovative projects is aimed at empowering fathers.  It is currently the only child support agency in the U.S. to receive and administer “Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood,” a $2 million annual grant program from the federal government.  The idea behind the project is to connect fathers to the lives of their children, as research shows that a community’s long-term outcomes improve when fathers are fully engaged and involved.   The Pathways grant provides local fathers with the education, support, and resources necessary to assume their responsibilities as a parent.  Fathers attend classes on topics such as responsible parenting, healthy marriage, and employment services.  To date, the program has provided assistance to more than 6,000 fathers, including job training and employment services for over 1,100 fathers, with more than 500 fathers actually receiving a job placement.

CSS also offers “wraparound” supportive services related to substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, and housing assistance to further assist fathers.  CSS recently received notice from the federal government that it will receive $2 million annually for the next five years to continue and expand its Pathways initiatives.

CSS ingenuity continues in other ways as it strives to build a client-centered organization that transforms the way it collects child support.  For example, as part of its effort to build a better call center, CSS began an overhaul of its call center operations in 2014 to reduce customer wait times and save taxpayer dollars.  Already, wait times at the call center have been reduced by two to three minutes, and customer complaints have virtually disappeared.  

Last year was also the first year of CSS’s pilot project called “Child Support in Your Neighborhood (CSYN)”.  Bringing County government directly into local neighborhoods is another strategy being used by CSS to build relationships with customers and assist families and children who need the most help.  SYN is comprised of a team of CSS staff who deliver child support services after hours at various locations in the community.  The team visits libraries and other community-based locations to review cases for custodial and noncustodial parents.  Over 200 people were helped by the CSYN team in 2014.  CSS hopes to increase child support collections by at least 20 percent over the next three years.

The agency’s progress has been so dramatic that the Wisconsin Child Support Enforcement Association (WCSEA) awarded Milwaukee County with its “County of the Year” award in 2013 – the first time Milwaukee County had ever won that award.  The National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA) also recognized CSS’s progress by holding its 2015 annual conference in Milwaukee.

"Strong communities are founded on strong families," said County Executive Abele. "I am incredibly proud of the work that Child Support Services has done to empower families and improve outcomes for children. Doing everything we can to strengthen families is a moral imperative place on Milwaukee County, and CSS’ record more than speaks for itself. We continue to use the principles of innovation and efficient government to produce uniquely strong results."

Serving Our Veterans
Through its Veterans Service Office Milwaukee County is committed to helping our veterans lead a dignified, healthy life. 

For County Executive Abele, veteran services are deeply personal as his grandfather lost his life in World War II when his submarine was sunk in the North Pacific.

One example of the County’s dedication to its veterans is its Milwaukee County (MC Cares) program.  The MC Program is designed to reach out to incarcerated veterans upon their release and encourage them to visit the Veterans Service office to connect to programs and services.  Upon their release, veterans receive a care package of personal items and a limited-fare bus pass.   These items serve as an encouragement for these veterans to report to the MCVSO to receive information on veteran’s benefits, including health care, education, grants, and job search assistance, with the goal being to set-up some positive outcomes that will reduce recidivism.  The program is being coordinated with the help of other public agencies, including the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the Milwaukee County House of Correction, and the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative.

The Veterans Service Office has also partnered with the Milwaukee County Department on Aging to organize large outreach seminars for senior veterans.  These seminars, held in 2013 and 2014, helped connect over 600 senior veterans and their spouses and family members to various public benefit programs, community-based resources, and government services.  In some cases, veterans literally left the event knowing they had secured $100 in FoodShare benefits or even hundreds of dollars in pension benefits or burial expense assistance.

Another unique initiative is the County’s Purple Heart Pass program.  This program recognizes Purple Heart recipients (servicemen and servicewomen who were wounded in combat) by providing them with free, year-round admission to various entertainment venues (such as the Harley-Davidson Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee Public Museum, County Zoo, and Boerner Botanical Gardens).

The Veterans Service Office has also partnered with the Milwaukee and West Allis Police Departments to receive donations of unclaimed bicycles.  These bikes are then transferred to the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative where they are serviced and then donated to need veterans.  Over 125 bikes have already been distributed to veterans.

Helping Older Adults Remain Independent
Milwaukee County’s Department on Aging has won numerous awards for its dedication and service to our community’s older adults.  County Executive Abele firmly believes in partnerships and services that help our older adults lead healthy and independent lives.

For example, over the past five years the Department has expanded evidence-based prevention programs.  Programs such as “Stepping On” and “Healthy Living With Diabetes” lead to fewer visits to local emergency rooms, fewer hospitalizations, and fewer days spent in the hospital – all of which save taxpayer dollars within the Medicaid and Medicare programs.    

The Milwaukee County Department on Aging (MCDA) has also set an ambitious goal of making our community “dementia-care capable” by 2017.   Having a dementia-capable community means having a community that supports individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia, as well as their caregivers.  MCDA’s vision for a dementia-friendly system includes these components:

  • Coordination of services and early diagnosis to reduce caregiver burden and ensure smooth care transitions

  • Specialized support services for individuals with dementia and their caregivers

  • Working with the Alzheimer’s Action Network to raise awareness about dementia and teach caregivers how to be advocates

  • Establishing “Memory Cafés” where people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias can enjoy a social setting with their caregivers and friends

  • Improving “Memory Connection Centers” that provide people with dementias and their caregivers with resources like peer support groups, educational workshops, and wellness programs

As part of this initiative, Milwaukee County is proud to collaborate with local businesses, the Alzheimers Association, the Milwaukee Public Museum, and local municipalities to create Memory Cafés  that help people with dementia.  Memory Cafés provide a chance for individuals with dementia and their caregivers to socialize with other families in similar situations.  Memory Cafés have already opened in Shorewood (at Three Lions Pub), Greendale (at Ferch’s Malt Shoppe and Grill), and Milwaukee  (at Pitch’s Express), and more are planned in future months.

“Memory Cafés provide a dignified, supportive, and engaging environment for persons with dementia and are one of the building blocks in our ongoing effort to create a Dementia Friendly Community,” County Executive Abele said.

Serving People With Disabilities
Milwaukee County is proud of its efforts to serve people with disabilities and ensure that these individuals live active, healthy, and dignified lives.

Milwaukee County’s My Choice Family Care (MCFC) department serves over 8,400 members in eight counties.  MCFC provides Family Care benefits to its members in a way that promotes respect and dignity, informs members about their choices and supports the choices that the member chooses, and promotes member participation in all aspects of the benefit process.

In the last five years, the MCFC has:

  • Successfully relocated over 1,200 people from nursing homes to the community.These moves have improved the quality of life for each individual and saved over $12 million to date.

  • Become one of the most financially stable Managed Care Organizations in the state

  • Produced a 19.5 percent improvement in its Quality Audit Scores since 2009 while expanding its service region, growing its provider network, and serving more members

Milwaukee County’s Disability Services Division also enhances the lives of disabled individuals through an array of programs and partnerships.  Over the last five years, DSD has improved services for people with disabilities, including:

  • Ending a thirty-year old waiting list for long-term support services for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities

  • Enrolling more children into the Children’s Long-Term Support Waiver program

  • Enrolling more children into the Birth-to-Three Early Intervention program

Preserving and Enhancing Our Parks
Parks maintain economic vitality, attract businesses, increase property values, build and support healthy communities, highlight the need for good stewardship practices, and provide safe havens for our youth.   Under the leadership of County Executive Abele, several initiatives of our award-winning Milwaukee County Parks Department are making our community a better place to live and work.  

One key initiative is the Urban Parks Renovation Plan which specifically targets investment in parks located within the City of Milwaukee.  This initiative has already resulted in millions of dollars of improvements at these locations:

  • A $2 million renovation of Moody Park, including installation of an outdoor splash pad with a small playground, a 3,000-square foot community center, an open-air picnic structure, lit pathways, a full reconstruction of the parking lot, a Helios exercise station, a relocation of lit basketball courts, and more green space for gatherings and field sports.

  • Developing a splash pad and pavilion in Lindbergh Park

  • At Johnson’s Park, building a new playground as well as a pavilion with restrooms and covered picnic space, multi-use athletic fields, a backstop/practice field, a reservable picnic area, and a Helios outdoor gym

  • Replacing and updating the entire HVAC system at MLK Community Center

  • Replacing select portions of park walkways within Humboldt Park

  • Replacing basketball courts at Zablocki Park, Barnard Park, Copernicus Park, Cudahy Park, Pulaski Park, and Kinnickinnic Sports Center

Other park improvements made in recent years include:

  • Committing $9.1 million to renew the including new LED lighting, traffic-calming features, and new off-road segments from the Oak Leaf Trail

  • Creation of a 43-mile Forked Aster Hiking Trail System

  • Creation of a new playground in Carver Park

  • Creation of a new ADA-accessible walkway in the Development of a facility in Franklin that includes a bike park, a snow/sledding park, baseball diamonds, and even a haunted hill

  • Creation of the Milwaukee County Trails Map and Park Guide

Another project involves a collaborative effort between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the Parks Department.These agencies launched an extensive clean-up operation of the Milwaukee River in 2014.Over time the river became contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and non-aqueous phase liquid.Approximately 170,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment has already been removed, and as of September 2015 the river has been declared “clean.”Restoration work will continue into 2016 with the placement of boulders and root wads for fish habitat and planting of native species.

The Parks Department is also collaborating with the YMCA to bring day camps and swim lessons to County park sites.  This partnership has extended the YMCA’s programming into its service areas and has given more children the opportunity to experience a safe, fun camp environment while learning water safety and swim skills.  Over 400 children benefitted from this program every summer weekday in 2015, and the Parks Department hopes to expand this program in 2016.

Another example of the Parks Department’s innovation and successful collaboration is its Traveling Beer Garden initiative.   Initiated in 2014 in partnership with Sprecher Brewing Company, this mobile operation visited 16 different parks and parkways throughout the summer in 2015.  The beer gardens brought back a long-time Milwaukee tradition as they served as a gathering place for friends, families, and neighbors.  The 2015 Traveling Beer Garden brought in revenue of $633,000 (a 153% increase over 2014) and served over 115,000 patrons (a 28% increase over 2014).  The Parks Department first “pop-up” beer garden in Scout Lake Park opened in 2015 and generated $45,000 in revenue and over 8,000 visitors.  All revenue collected from the beer gardens goes toward additional park improvements.

Milwaukee County Parks and House of Corrections staff are also collaborating on a unique plan to clean up Milwaukee County.  This partnership involves mobilizing teams of inmates to do things like:

  • prune trees and clean up leaves at county parks

  • paint baseball dugouts at county parks

  • paint walls and ceilings at the Milwaukee County Soccer Complex

  • clean and polish floors at the South Shore Park pavilion

  • pick up litter and pull weeds on county-owned lots

  • perform landscape maintenance and snow removal at county-foreclosed properties

Linking People To Energy Assistance
Milwaukee County’s Energy Assistance Program provides qualified Milwaukee County residents with a one-time annual payment to make energy bills more affordable.  Under the County Executive’s leadership, the County has expanded access to the Energy Assistance Program by offering new ways to apply (such as online or over the phone) and by extending business hours. 

New energy assistance contracts have enabled the County to partner with Community Advocates and UMOS to offer residents a number of convenient ways to apply for the program.  The new process lets eligible residents apply for energy assistance by calling 414-270-4-MKE, going online or visiting community-based locations in person.  The County more than doubled the number of permanent sites that process applications, bringing the service closer to more residents.  People can apply anytime between October 1, 2015  and May 15, 2016. 

As a result of the County’s effort, the Energy Assistance Program is expected to serve over 75,000 households in the 2015-16 energy season – which would be a 20 percent increase over last year’s energy season
Preserving Animal Species at the Zoo
The Milwaukee County Zoo is one of our community’s greatest assets.  Over the last five years we have enhanced the customer experience at the Zoo, and more initiatives are under way.

One of the Zoo’s many collaborative efforts involves partnering with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to acquire a snow leopard from Europe. The Zoo will also be receiving a snow leopard from a North American zoo in order to add both a male and female snow leopard to its exhibit in the “Big Cat” area. Snow leopards are an endangered species, and acquiring them helps the zoo play a role in conserving the species and ensuring its long-term survival.

Recently the Zoo also debuted its $160,000 Gorilla Yard, a full renovation of the gorilla’s outdoor area. The renovation includes new platforms and climbing structures and was made possible by a partnership with the Northwestern Mutual Foundation and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee.

The Zoo is also beginning its Adventure Africa exhibit, a two-phase project that includes renovation of the pachyderm and giraffe exhibits, and a new hippopotamus exhibit with underwater viewing.  Design of the first phase, a new elephant exhibit, began in November 2015.

Other zoo enhancements are in the works, including:

  • Building a new west parking lot to replace the loss of parking spaces due to the sale of Zoo land for the Zoo Interchange Construction Project

  • Installing three Mamava nursing suites for mothers with infants

  • Creating a Zoo App the help visitors navigate the Zoo and access information about Zoo animals

  • Opening a new West Entrance that will include a North American otter exhibit in the spring of 2016. The entrance will be at 106th Street.


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