It was March of 2020 and Rafael Acevedo was scrambling to protect nearly 1,000 of Milwaukee’s most vulnerable citizens.
As the city’s grant compliance manager, Acevedo is responsible for overseeing Milwaukee’s efforts to end homelessness. He works closely with nonprofit groups and homeless service providers all around the city – and in March of 2020, as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, those crowded shelters were about to become a dangerous place.
“We were like, we have to figure this out. We have to mitigate the spread,” Acevedo recalled. “We have a shelter with close to 200 people in it and they’re all in this big room. We’ve got to decompress all of the shelters.”
Working with community partners and private businesses, he and his colleagues managed to do just that, avoiding major outbreaks of the disease among people already hit by hardship.
The start of his service
Acevedo grew up in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. After he graduated high school, he deferred college in order to work, but eventually enrolled in college at UW-Milwaukee at age 23. It was familiar territory; Acevedo’s father is a UWM alumnus as well.
Acevedo found himself drawn to sociology, interested in how it could help him in a community-oriented career. Outside of the classroom, he started to get hands-on experience as a community organizer and activist. He served as the president of the Latino Student Union, and he had a role in advocating for the creation of UWM’s Roberto Hernández Center.
“During my tenure there, I and a lot of other students lobbied and protested at times for a new center on campus,” he recalled. In fact, Acevedo’s friend, who served as president of the Latino Student Union one year after Acevedo did, is none other than Alberto Maldonado, who oversees the Roberto Hernández Center today.
After graduating in 1999, Acevedo took a series of nonprofit jobs, including with Public Allies’ Milwaukee Office, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and the Latino Health Organization. About seven years ago, he transitioned to working for the City of Milwaukee as the grant compliance manager, responsible for overseeing federal funding meant to mitigate and prevent homelessness.
No place to call home
At any given time, Acevedo said, Milwaukee has between 800-900 people experiencing homelessness. The majority are able to find refuge in shelters, but Acevedo estimates there are 100-150 people sleeping on the streets at night.
The causes are myriad; everything from lack of affordable housing to disabilities to drug addiction to unemployment can drive someone out of their house and into the street. Acevedo keeps that in mind when he thinks of housing as a public health issue.
“We have what we call a ‘housing first’ approach. Our approach is, let’s get you into housing right away,” Acevedo said. “Then we can work with you on … employment or filling out paperwork for disability benefits.”
After all, he added, it’s easier for someone to maintain employment or manage their mental health issue if they’re not also sleeping in their car or worried about their next meal.
He also works with landlords to try and keep people in their homes by ensuring that people can use housing vouchers to help pay their rent. He proudly reports that one of the larger landlords in the city recently adopted a ‘mediate first’ policy – pledging to try and mediate with tenants about any issues before evicting them.
Acevedo meets regularly with the directors of nonprofits and shelters like the Guest House, Community Advocates, Hope House, and others. Together, they talk about best practices and work to address gaps in services so they can better serve Milwaukee’s homeless population. Thanks to their combined efforts, “we’ve been able to reduce homelessness by about 42 percent in the past seven years. At one time, we were at about 1,500 (individuals experiencing homelessness),” Acevedo said.
But then came COVID.
A federal moratorium on evictions during the pandemic kept Milwaukee’s number of people experiencing homelessness from ballooning as Acevedo had feared, but in March 2020, the shelters were still too crowded to be safe.
“We, right away, called hotels in Milwaukee. We needed to put folks from the shelters in these hotels and keep them a room, safe, where they’re not getting infected,” Acevedo said.
He and his community partners were able to get rooms from the Ambassador Inn in Milwaukee, and talked to the archdiocese about using Clare Hall, which formerly housed nuns, as a COVID-19 isolation site. All told, Acevedo managed to secure three hotels with close to 200 rooms. The Milwaukee Rescue Mission, which experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, went from housing 210 individuals to a much more manageable 60. The Milwaukee Health Department provided N95 masks to be handed out at homeless shelters back when the mask shortage was acute, and later helped set up testing and vaccination locations.
But Acevedo isn’t resting on a job well done. He’s working hard to secure more hotel rooms so he can keep people out of the cold during the coming winter. Long term, he hopes he puts himself out of a job by ending homelessness in Milwaukee altogether.
Community members can help by making donations to any of Milwaukee’s shelters and organizations working to address homelessness. A listing of these agencies can be found at www.milwaukeecoc.org . And, Acevedo added, a little bit of empathy goes a long way.
“For anyone who is experiencing mental health (issues) or addiction, those are extremely difficult to overcome,” he said. “(To have) someone who is unstably housed makes it even more challenging for them to get the understanding and the support that they need.”
By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science