This week, Executive Director of Near West Side Partners Keith Stanley interviews Milwaukee Assistant District Attorney Jesica Ballenger about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her work in the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office and her role within the city’s community prosecution unit.

Pictured above on the left Assistant District Attorney Jessica Ballenger

In the interview, Jesica addresses what she sees as some of the most major problems that the community is facing in these uncertain times that we find ourselves. Specifically she looks at Milwaukee’s homeless population and how local Milwaukee organizations stepped up to assist our most vulnerable community members. One such organization is Milwaukee County Housing First, which has social workers and outreach specialists scouring the community at all times looking for people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. Housing First seeks to provide immediate housing to members of the community who need it most, emphasizing that housing is the most important first step towards a long road of success for members of the community that need help getting back on their feet. Housing first has been proven to reduce trips to the emergency room, detox services, incarceration, shelter use, and hospitalization. Jesica also highlights other resources for the homeless population within the community, including the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, the Guest House, St. Ben’s Parish.

Pictured above: Data provided by Assistant District attorney Ballenger showing that since the inception of Housing First homelessness in Milwaukee has sharply decreased.

Keith and Jesica also touch on the problem of trauma and mental illness within the homeless community in Milwaukee. Jesica explained that through her experiences within the community she realized that the key to addressing traumas, addictions, and mental illnesses was through addressing the issue of housing first. She addresses this assertion in an insightful quote.

“It’s hard to treat and to address those other issues, any sort of trauma or addiction type issues, if you don’t have a stable residence … when all you’re focused on is your day to day survival.”

Jesica’s point stands very true, especially within the contexts of the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s very difficult for members of the Milwaukee community to address deep underlying issues without first having a roof over their heads. Organizations like Housing First addressed earlier believe the same thing, the first step to success is to insure housing without any requirements in order to address the most basic needs first. Once the most basic needs are met, other issues can be addressed.

Jesica also highlighted the Near West Side’s response to the problem of housing insecurity within the community. Our homeless intervention initiative, partnered with all five of our anchor organizations, Marquette University, Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Aurora Health Care, Potawatomi Business Development Corporation, and MillerCoors, was created to connect with local organizations and focus on our area to continue to offer support to the most vulnerable members of our community. The Near West Side and our partners recognized that the economic landscape surrounding our community was changing and decided to get out in front of it. By establishing our own initiative to partner with members of our community to ensure that we continue to effectively address homelessness and housing insecurity the Near West Side seeks to protect all community members while at the same time keeping our city safe and promoting the growth of local businesses. By actively trying to identify problems before they present themselves the Near West Side and our partners hope to ensure that our Milwaukee community thrives in the face of uncertainty and changing times.

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