On October 14, 2021, amidst an uncertain, unprecedented time in a global pandemic, a blue ribbon was cut in a new office space housed on the second floor of the Legal Aid/Community Advocates' Building in Milwaukee.
This ribbon cutting was the official launch of EvictionFreeMKE, a program that connects Milwaukee families under 200% of poverty guidelines to free lawyers and resources that help with the eviction process at no cost. Now a year old, the program shows no signs of stopping.
United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County recently sat down with Colleen Foley, Executive Director at Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee to reflect on the past year with EvictionFreeMKE.
"We’re making real change, right away," she said.
Before EvictionFreeMKE’s launch in early fall 2021, just 3% of individuals in Milwaukee County had any form of legal representation in the courts when facing eviction. It’s an intimidating system that leaves families confused and anxious; many people aren’t informed of the legal process, their rights, or the possible outcomes. But there’s been change in the last year thanks to EvictionFreeMKE; legal representation for individuals facing eviction has moved from 3% to 25% in the first year alone.
Their work doesn’t live only in the courtroom, though. Legal Aid’s EvictionFreeMKE team has grown to 13 lawyers, two paralegals, and two intake specialists who work together helping people at risk of eviction. In recognition of the need for services after the legal case concludes, the program has recently added a Resource Liaison position to better link families to available resources and navigate what comes next. Because of the growth over the past year, about 80% of people who seek help for their evictions qualify for EvictionFreeMKE services, and tenant and landlord advocates are engaging in meaningful, collaborative dialogue to improve the system.
"We help connect people better and more efficiently to available rent assistance," said Foley, "Which is mutually beneficial to landlords and tenants, and leads to swifter resolution."
In late September 2022, Legal Aid convened a Landlord/Tenant Symposium at United Way, which generated shared ideas for improvements to the court system and areas for common ground overall. Ultimately, there was consensus that eviction is a zero-sum game and that a legal advocate advances solutions when the landlord/tenant relationship sours. EvictionFreeMKE educates tenants not only about rights, but also obligations – helping to break the cycle of eviction and housing insecurity in the process.
Foley reflected on the collective culture change in the eviction landscape being borne out by EvictionFreeMKE. "The silver lining of the pandemic is that it has provided an opportunity for real change to dysfunctional systems."
Through United Way’s Safe and Stable Homes initiative, EvictionFreeMKE was selected as one of 22 organizations to receive funding to aid their efforts in ending family homelessness. The program has further gained momentum with outreach from other cities seeking to model it for their communities and interest from corporate philanthropy on how to sustain it for the long term.
"There’s still a long way to go," Foley remarked, but neither she nor EvictionFreeMKE are slowing down. "Really good things are happening."
Pictured from top to bottom: October 14, 2021 ribbon cutting at EvictionFreeMKE; September 2022 Landlord/Tenant Symposium; Colleen Foley, Executive Director at Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee.
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