Homeless in La Crosse: “I live in this park”

Randy Whitney starts a new part-time job on Monday at a fast-food chain in La Crosse. But unlike the other employees, after he clocks out he’ll head down to Cameron Park where he’s been sleeping recently, except for nights when the park is cleared by police.

“Every time they say you’ve got to leave, I just leave and I come back in the morning, but other people are refusing to leave and they’re getting tickets,” he told The La Crosse Independent. “I go down by Riverside, sleep behind one of the buildings on the pier.”

Whitney is 37 and was born and raised in Milwaukee but has lived on and off in La Crosse since 2003. Last year, he got a severe lung infection and was put on oxygen. He moved to Kenosha to stay with his brother but had difficulty finding work and eventually made his way back to La Crosse, arriving just before COVID-19 hit.

Randy Whitney.

“I tried living in Iowa with a friend, it didn’t work the way I hoped because I got taken advantage of,” Whitney said. “I came back here. I bounced around, sometimes I’ll stay on a friend’s couch; for the most part I’ll sleep behind buildings. But I realized sleeping behind the buildings I wasn’t getting any help so I came to this park because this is where a lot of the volunteers come.”

Whitney showers and does his laundry at Catholic Charities and said his new employer knows he’s homeless. He reckons it will take him at least six months to save enough money before he can start thinking about getting a place of his own.

“A lot of people in the city, they think people choose to be homeless, but that’s not the case,” said Whitney. “The case is that a lot of people are homeless because they’re not getting the help they need. They think ‘oh they’re just drunks or they’re just drug addicts or he likes this.’ No. We’re not getting the help we need. Nobody is understanding just how bad things are.”

Whitney wanted to emphasize that he was speaking for himself, and not attempting to represent the views of anyone else in the park. He said in the winter, he’ll likely use the warming center to stay out of the cold at night.

“Not everybody here is trying to cause a problem; I don’t bother nobody,” he said. “I keep out of everybody else’s business. I stay in my own area and I do my own thing. I clean up any mess I make.”

More than a dozen homeless people were at Cameron Park on Sunday afternoon. Some were sprawled out on the grass attempting to get some sleep. Others were chatting and eating as volunteers distributed food.

But the relative calm was interrupted when one woman suddenly became loudly aggressive, lifted up a trashcan and emptied the contents onto the grass. She walked off, and police arrived on the scene to talk to her. That was when Tom Gray, easily recognizable by his long blond hair, moved in to clean up the area, picking up the trash and putting it back in the can.

Tom Gray.

“I live in this park,” said Gray, who is 61 and originally from Medford, Oregon, and works for the city of La Crosse cleaning the parks, in addition to sleeping in one. He used to work as a press operator for a company in Onalaska until he broke his back. He’s had a hard time finding full-time work since then.

“About all I can do now is clean the parks up, that’s my job,” he said. “I’m lucky if I get 15 hours in two weeks and I get $9 an hour.”

Gray said it’s tough sleeping out in the park with the mosquitoes and other bugs bothering him at night. But his prospects of getting an apartment of his own are slim when his take-home pay can be as low as $50 every two weeks. Gray was among a number of homeless people who were recently ticketed by the police for being in the park after hours. 

“I got one the other night and I just tore it up and threw it in the garbage,” he said. “C’mon guys! I work for the city too, what the hell are you giving me a ticket for?”

The tickets come with a $124 fine. Police don’t forcibly remove homeless people from the park, but if they refuse to leave, they risk getting a ticket.

Susan Moore, who is originally from Tennessee, was also ticketed. Moore is 55 and moved to La Crosse to care for her mother, who died last year. After that, Moore was evicted and found herself on the streets. She tries to sleep during the day as the park can be dangerous at night. Recently, her backpack was stolen. At the same time, she says the park is a place where there is a real sense of solidarity among the people who live there.

Susan Moore.

“In some cases, people show one another the greatest bits of kindness, if somebody needs something, then somebody is going to provide it. If you need some food or something to drink or whatever,” she said. “But you’ve got both kinds down here. You’ve just got to really, really watch who you hang out with. There’s four or five of us that hang out together here and we all watch each other 24/7.”

Police have been increasing their efforts to clear the park at night, Moore said. She wanted it to be known that she has nothing against individual police officers, who she said are just doing their jobs.

“They started coming down on that recently, they want us out at 11 p.m. at night but where are we supposed to go?” she said. “The shelters are closed. There’s nowhere else to go. I got a $124 ticket. I’m not sure what I intend to do, just ignore it maybe.”

Moore said she recently tried to get into the Salvation Army shelter but was unsuccessful. The shelter is currently on lockdown due to COVID-19 and people must quarantine for two weeks before entering.

“We need another shelter, flat out,” Moore said.

By Eric Timmons. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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