HOMES Initiative

What if no child had to grow up worrying about where they would go to sleep at night or live during the day?

Photo of Christie Guertin
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In 2016, a young girl and her parents came into the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin's child welfare program after being homeless for several months. Professionals at a homeless shelter where the family stayed in late 2015 had described the girl as "animated" and "childlike" months prior and had said since that time she had changed notably. She was now described as withdrawn and emotionless. In the six months since initial contact with the shelter, the young girl's outlook on life and overall well-being had significantly diminished. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has infused community based services throughout the entire state of Wisconsin, recognizing in order to have an impact on a child’s health and well-being you have to provide more than quality medical care. Two separate Children’s community based programs noticed the need for safe and stable housing in the Milwaukee area and connected the lack of appropriate housing with increased risk for children entering the child welfare system. We recognize that to have the healthiest kids in the nation, we have to help families have a place to call home.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Children's Hospital of Wisconsin website: Institute for Child and Family Well-Being website:

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Wisconsin

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Wisconsin

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

An important aspect of understanding well-being is to understand neurobiology and the impact that exposure to adversity can have on brain development. Research shows when children experience housing instability and chronic economic distress , their bodies are often rich with toxic stress which, sustained over time, can alter their neurological ability to manage or navigate complex processes as they grow up. This toxic stress has a negative impact on brain architecture and executive functioning, which if experienced in childhood can impact an individual's problem-solving and resiliency when they are adults. Often processes to get assistance with housing, finances or food are multi-faceted and siloed which are difficult to navigate even for individuals that do not have the impacts of adversity. This contributes to generational economic distress and overall stress of entire communities.

Research has shown that children who are raised in a stable household and in neighborhoods with low turnover rates are more likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to experience teen pregnancy. Better quality housing is correlated with lower rates of psychological distress and also has an impact on physical health.  All children should have an opportunity for these outcomes.

Through this project, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin aims to educate and align resources and policies at the federal, state, and city level to develop an approach to housing assistance and resource coordination that is sensitive to the unique needs of families experiencing toxic stress and chronic adversity.  We are doing this through understanding the strengths and challenges of neighborhoods in Milwaukee that are most in need and tapping into the wisdom of residents within the communities themselves, with the intention to replicate the interventions in other parts of the state and even the country.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:


Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Start-Up (a pilot that has just started operating)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Children's Community Health Navigators have gone door-to-door to survey a sample of residents in three partner neighborhoods within the city of Milwaukee. The Navigators talked with residents about their experiences with housing and employment systems, access to resources and their own coping and resilience. Children’s will engage the larger community, including residents, local leaders and agencies through café style discussions. The purpose of these discussions is to gain an understanding of the needs within the community, the availability of services in the area, the ease of applying for support and negotiating services, and to create a stakeholder team to leverage solutions from these discussions.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Children’s utilizes a data driven approach to systems changes. Within this project moving forward, we will conduct a developmental evaluation that nests quantitative changes in key indicators, with qualitative feedback from staff, stakeholders, and residents. Some potential areas of impact could include: Short-term: Identify resources that can help establish and maintain safe and stable homes for children and families Medium-term: Empowering children and families in communities to identify and access resources that support stable housing Improve child developmental functioning Long-term: Policy changes will occur that will make more supportive housing resources available for families to avoid child welfare. Reduction in child welfare involvement, shorter episodes of involvement with child welfare

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • over $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Thus far, the cost of the survey development, information gathering and data analysis is captured within currently existing roles at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. We are looking for opportunities for financial support for this work moving forward, such as re-allocation of child welfare funds to supportive housing prevention services, as we work with the community and other organizations to find solutions to address housing instability.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

The intersection of child and family well-being with housing stability has been addressed through a number of initiatives including federal demonstration grants and private foundation funded programs, such as the Sound Families Initiative. These programs offer innovative solutions that may be offered as potential options within our work. What is unique about our project is having a community led initiative that includes a spotlight on the impact of adversity on functioning, a focus on prevention programs so families do not have to come to child welfare, and systems level change to ease access.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The impact of a person’s environment on their health and well-being has long been known through research and application of the ecological approach. When different systems are aligned with this understanding and the understanding of the lifelong impact that economic distress can have on families, there will be an opportunity to improve outcomes for individuals and for whole communities. The increased knowledge we now have about epigenetics and the generational impact of trauma, combined with a shift toward prevention and family preservation funding create a prime opportunity to explore this.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Twitter
  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County

Program Design Clarity

The 3 neighborhoods we are engaging for the HOMES Initiative have poverty rates 2.8 times higher than the state of Wisconsin as a whole, with a child welfare removal rate of 33 per 1000 nearly ten times the state average. We have completed a survey of residents within the 3 neighborhoods and have engaged the larger community through a panel discussion with community leaders. Following the community discussion, we will gather a group of resident and community stakeholders to involve other organizations in change that will influence systems in a way to make housing more easily accessible.

Community Leadership

We have involved the community already through the HOMES survey completed this year, which precedes a community café focused on housing and well-being. In preparation for the café, we've met with Milwaukee County Director of Health and Human Services, will be including key members from the community on the café panel and will recruit residents for a stakeholder group to prioritize and develop potential initiatives.

Age of Children Impacted

  • Pregnancy - 0
  • 0-1.5
  • 1.5 -3
  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

We hope to raise awareness, create partnerships, and translate research into programs that demonstrate results. Using the Institute for Child and Family Well-Being as a platform, we’ll work with residents across health care, child welfare, and housing systems to create evidence based solutions. While we have made connections with various researchers already, we are also building partnerships with residents and local leaders to shape solutions.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

At the very base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is physiological needs. Under this theory, an individual must satisfy their basic needs before being able to grow to their full potential and then helping others achieve their potential as well. The HOMES Initiative is directly addressing a child and family's needs for shelter, while recognizing engaged individuals and communities are most capable of developing solutions when empowered to do so.

Leadership Story

I have worked in child welfare for 12 years and I've seen the children and adolescents that were in foster care when I started are now the parents of children in foster care. Adolescent well-being and the high rates of homeless young adults after discharge from foster care has always been one of my areas of focus, and while still crucial, it is important to work earlier with children to prevent toxic stress early in brain development so the cyclical nature of child welfare does not continue. Providing supportive housing based programs that focus on well-being is a way to end this cycle.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)


Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

A vital endeavor! And such potential for impact.

In terms of improving your submission for the competition, I might suggest that you go ahead and share some of the research about the effects of housing insecurity on neurological development. Since you don't yet have numbers for what your program's impact will be like, including the background numbers will add weight to your proposal. And although you are creating a program to create a program, if there's any way to include more details about how your program will function both to collect and process information, and facilitate it's use in building solutions, that would also make the proposal stronger.

Good luck! And thanks for your contribution to the underserved children in Milwaukee and beyond!