A proposal that would allow donations to be collected at General Mitchell International Airport (GMIA) to aid in Milwaukee County’s fight against homelessness received unanimous support from a County Board committee on May 14.

The measure would modify ordinance language that prevents solicitation near security checkpoints at Mitchell Airport. It would allow the County to install collection boxes in support of the Housing Division’s Housing First Initiative, a program that recognizes housing as the first step toward stabilization.

The Housing First Initiative offers stable living conditions, along with other vital services that range from rehabilitation and counseling to job training and placement. Airport passengers, who are emptying their pockets as they move through the security check station, can opt to donate their loose change to help the homeless program.

“I am grateful that the committee gave its support to this creative solution that can make a real difference in fighting homelessness,” said County Executive Chris Abele. “We’ve been able to dramatically cut the number of homeless residents in the last three years, but we still have more work to do. A small change to an ordinance plus some pocket change from airport passengers can add up to making big changes in our community.”

Housing Division Administrator James Mathy came across the idea for the donation boxes while researching avenues to raise private funds, as a way to preserve the momentum of the County’s homelessness initiatives. Denver International Airport placed donation containers at security lines, with all proceeds supporting the city’s program to address homelessness, Denver’s Road Home. That effort raised $282,722 in three years. Milwaukee County hopes to replicate their success at GMIA.

“Our mission to end chronic homelessness by autumn of this year has required new ideas and solutions that ensure we are finding new community partners to continue to move the needle on homelessness in our community,” said Mathy. “By collaborating with General Mitchell International Airport and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the generosity of travelers in Milwaukee will not only make our mission to provide the dignity of housing to those in the greatest need successful, but keep these individuals safe in a home sustainably for the foreseeable future.”

The plan is also similar to the Milwaukee program Key to Change, which installed special parking meters along Wisconsin Avenue. The donations collected through that program also go to support the Housing First project.

“This is an innovative idea that I hope will help Milwaukee County meet the challenges of reducing homelessness in our community,” said County Supervisor Marcelia Nicholson, who chairs the Economic and Community Development Committee. “As an educator, I encounter homeless children on a regular basis and understand the struggles they face. I’m personally honored to play a part in helping to address this critical issue.”

While the County is on track toward its goal of ending chronic homelessness by this fall, those who do not fit the definition of chronically homeless also require assistance. A majority of the new funding to combat homelessness has come from Milwaukee County in the past few years, but additional resources are needed.

In order for the proposal of donation containers at Mitchell Airport to move forward, it must receive approval from the full County Board when it meets on May 24.

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Lee Matz