Damakant Jayshi

Marathon County’s Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday endorsed a revised “Family Keys” project that seeks to reunite families with their children, by directing the county administrator to incorporate the program in the 2023 budget.

The project aims to provide safe housing for families court-cleared to reunite with their children. Parents who meet all requirements but lack safe housing cannot have their children back, resulting in additional foster care. The Family Keys program aims to address this gap.

The Department of Social Services, in partnership with Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families, has made changes to three major components of the fully funded 2-year program. Single-family rentals would replace congregate rentals, a contracting agency hired by the DSS would handle leasing to address concerns over financial risks to the county, and occupancy is emphasized as temporary and based on family needs. That would prevent families from staying in the program forever.

The funding for the two-year first phase is $327,000. The grant will pay for rent and the utilities but not food.

While making the presentation to the HHS Committee on Wednesday, DSS Director Vicki Tylka said that the program is only available to those families who are involved in the child welfare system but cannot have their children back because they face a housing barrier. Both Director Tylka and County Administrator Lance Leonhard said the revised program addresses the concerns expressed earlier by some supervisors.

The single family units will be based on a scattered site model and be available throughout the county, and not just in Wausau. But the DSS director said it would be challenging to find an adequate number of single family units for rent because of their high prices. She added that since renting will be done for a full year, they expect landlords to participate in the program.

A number of supervisors who opposed the initial version of the program in July had cited congregate living as a main reason for their objection. They said they were open to supporting the program if it had single-family units instead of a large home where two to three families lived together. Two supervisors, HHS Committee member Ron Covelli and Stacey Morache, who attended the meeting on Wednesday, said the revised program is better than the original version.

To minimize financial risk, the contracted agency would locate units for rent, and negotiate and sign leases. This would also address the challenge faced by families who do not have adequate rental history and thus end up missing out on having a place of their own – despite having the required qualification and finances.

The occupancy is for a period of three to nine months, based on family need and controlled by the Dept. of Social Services. A case manager who is part of the grant program will assist these families, Tylka said.

One new element in the revised program is that a family can opt to live in the rented unit if they like it and assume the responsibility to pay the rent. That will also help them build their rental history.

Supervisor Kody Hart said that there are real human costs due to the delay in not accepting the grant in July. He said there are children ready to be united with their families right now but are being forced to wait for a few months more. The Family Keys project, if approved by the full 38-member County Board of Supervisors, is set to be implemented in January 2023.

The program will now be considered by the Marathon County board during budget discussions.