“The cops coming in and kicking them out is not a solution”

Police appear to be escalating attempts to stop homeless people sleeping in Cameron Park in downtown La Crosse at a time when advocates say many have nowhere else to go.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, police issued a number of citations to homeless people in the park who declined to leave when asked to do so. Others voluntarily left the park. A similar incident occurred Friday night, and some homeless people have been ticketed more than once in recent days.

Kim Erickson, who volunteers to assist people sleeping in the park, said police have warned they will continue to come back and ticket people. The citations issued are mostly for being in the park after hours, a municipal ticket that comes with a $124 fine. Others have also received tickets for having open intoxicants in the park. With nowhere else to go, Erickson said some of the homeless she has spoken to are prepared to continue defying police orders to leave until they are sent to jail.

“They just keep saying give me tickets, and eventually they will get a safe warm place to live during the winter,” she said. “We know that being in the park overnight is against city ordinances but there’s nowhere else for them to go.”

Erickson said a recent survey found about 70 people sleeping outside in La Crosse but she thinks the number is likely considerably higher. She’s worried the situation in the park could escalate if the police continue attempting to clear it.

“The cops coming in and ticketing and kicking them out is not a solution, it’s creating a bigger problem,” she said. “We need to pool together and help them get the resources they need.”

Because of COVID-19, anyone seeking shelter at the Salvation Army must first be quarantined for 14 days, which may not possible for some homeless people in the park who have jobs. Others cannot go to the Salvation Army due to substance abuse or other issues. Erickson said there is a shortage of other emergency housing, leaving the homeless with few options.

Speaking on Friday, La Crosse police captain Jason Melby acknowledged that police had been attempting to clear the park over recent nights. He noted that police do not forcibly remove the homeless, but do issue tickets to anyone who refuses to leave the park after hours. 

“We are going to the park and asking for voluntary compliance,” he said.

Melby said the numbers of homeless people did appear to be up significantly in La Crosse, leaving police with a difficult balancing act. Homeless people have been sleeping in groups in parking ramps and near Black River Beach, in addition to Cameron Park, he said.

There have also been recent complaints to the city from vendors at the Cameron Park Farmers Market, which takes place on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, about the growing number of homeless people at the park causing disruptions to the market.

“We are working both sides of this,” Melby said, adding that police have an obligation to ensure that public areas “don’t turn into quasi encampments” while also working with the  Coulee Collaborative to End Homelessness and other agencies to find solutions.

To help deal with increased homelessness as a result of the pandemic, the city of La Crosse recently distributed $262,500 in federal CARES Act funding to a number of local homelessness service providers. Among the recipients of the money were Couleecap’s Rapid Rehousing Program, Catholic Charities, and the Salvation Army of La Crosse County.

By Eric Timmons. Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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