Olson: City should invest in housing for the homeless

It’s time for the city to spend the money to provide public housing for the homeless, says one city council member.

A recent survey estimated that at least 70 people were sleeping outside in La Crosse, with many of those located in Cameron Park, which has been a focus of police activity in recent days. 

Police have been ticketing the homeless for being in the park after hours, a municipal offense that carries a $124 fine. But Council Member Jessica Olson, District 8, on Tuesday called on Police Chief Shawn Kudron to direct his officers to leave the homeless alone.

“Ticketing people for being present somewhere is really nonsense to me and I hope the chief really reevaluates that,” Olson told The La Crosse Independent. 

If there are reports of violence or threatening behavior, then police should intervene, but otherwise they should stay away, she added.

“I think it’s really a pointless practice. Someone who’s already living in a park, or under a bridge, or in their car does not have money to pay a citation,” Olson said.  “It keeps people entrapped in a punitive system.”

There were reports on Tuesday from several activists that the city had cut off water supply to Cameron Park. Police have been consistently issuing tickets to people in the park over the past several nights. But those living there say they have nowhere else to go. The Salvation Army shelter is on lockdown and anyone who wants to shelter there must first complete a two week quarantine.

Olson said she thinks it’s time for the city to invest in public housing for the homeless, possibly in partnership with other agencies, local governments and the La Crosse County Housing Authority. She said housing could be attached to the project to build a new northside fire station. The city has included spending of $2.3 million in 2021 on the project as part of an estimated $16.8 million in borrowing for capital projects next year. Olson said she has contacted Fire Chief Ken Gilliam to discuss details for what she added was a “radical idea.”

“It would be something that the government owns and manages with no profit motive,” Olson said.

She envisions a development of multiple units with shared kitchen and common areas and she thinks there would be public buy-in for the project as it would be attached to the new fire station.

“It might be easier to convince people when there would be a 24-hour presence of fire personnel at the site,” she said.

Kim Erickson, who has been volunteering to help the people living at Cameron Park, said new ideas for housing are needed, as people simply have nowhere to go at present. She said a significant number of people have been living in the park since March but it’s only recently that police have become more insistent on trying to clear the area at night.

Another council member, Gary Padesky, District 7, did not join Olson’s call on the police to stop attempting to remove people from the park. He said he would need to speak to police officers to get details on exactly what was happening first. Padesky, however, did say he could support Olson’s public housing idea, but would like to see neighboring communities, such as Holmen and Onalaska, agree to chip in. But he added that he was skeptical that would ever happen.

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

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