Mayor weighs in on policing, homelessness at Cameron Park

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat has issued a strong defense of the city’s record on homelessness and discussed the delicate balance he thinks the city is attempting to strike at Cameron Park between the needs of the unsheltered who have made the park their home and the concerns of the general public.

“I’d be interested to hear what Onalaska, West Salem, Holmen, La Crescent and others contribute to helping solve our homeless challenges,” Mayor Kabat said. “We have the stories and examples where each of these communities bought taxi rides or dropped off people from their locations to downtown La Crosse. It is a true shame we cannot come together as a region on this and provide more affordable housing – another challenge that everyone believes is a City of La Crosse problem to solve.”

Mayor Tim Kabat

A significant number of people have been attempting to sleep outside in Cameron Park for several months, according to advocates for the homeless. Many say they have no other choices. In recent weeks, the city has been issuing tickets to homeless people in the park who refuse to leave the area after the park closes at 11 p.m.

“The La Crosse Police Department (LCPD) have responded to 390 calls for service to Cameron Park alone since the start of the year,” the mayor told The La Crosse Independent. “We have issued tickets to those who have refused to leave the park and to those who have been drinking alcohol, fighting, smoking or camping.”

“Our PARKS ARE FOR EVERYONE”

A member of the city council, Jessica Olson, this week called on the police to stop issuing tickets to people merely for being in the park. She also called on the city to invest in public housing as a solution to the issue and not so-called affordable housing, which is often out of reach for those experienceing homelessness.

Speaking on Thursday, the mayor said the city had “been working every day to find homes, develop shelter and quarantine spaces for our homeless” in conjunction with agencies like the Coulee Collaborative to End Homelessness, which receives funding from the city.

However, Kabat also said the city has a responsibility to preserve parks as places that can be enjoyed by all people, which he suggested was made difficult when people set up camp in public parks. All city parks close at 11 p.m., and alcohol is banned in many, including Cameron, a park the mayor said was not suitable for “overnight camping or human habitation.”

“We have also recently witnessed the attitude that Cameron Park has been ‘claimed’ by a small group of individuals and that not everyone is welcome,” Kabat said. “That is wrong, our parks are for everyone.”

Nowhere else to go

People living in Cameron Park interviewed by The La Crosse Independent say they are not staying there by choice, but simply have nowhere else to go. They note that the Salvation Army Shelter is currently on lockdown due to COVID-19 and is only accepting people who first go into quarantine for 14 days. The mayor, however, said offers to house the homeless living in Cameron Park had been made.

“Recently our partners reached out to those people staying in Cameron Park to relocate to a local hotel – we would provide the funds, but none of them took us up on our offer,” the mayor said.

Asked why people turned down that offer, the mayor said he did not know. But it’s likely some who were asked were concerned it would mean entering a period of lockdown in the hotel. At least two people who have been living in Cameron Park have jobs, while others have substance abuse and mental health issues, according to advocates.

On the subject of police issuing tickets to the homeless, the mayor said a program was in place to have those citations voided. Several homeless people have shown the tickets they received to The La Crosse Independent; all were for being in the park after hours, which comes with a $124 fine. In some cases, people in the park have now received multiple tickets.

“A couple of years ago we started a diversion program for those individuals cited for camping violations to get their tickets dropped,” the mayor said. “The LCPD is now working to establish a more robust approach to the diversion program by encompassing nearly all violations. We have also offered our homeless citizens jobs with the city to help us keep the parks clean.”

However, it’s not clear that all those receiving the tickets are aware the diversion program exists, or if they will in fact be able to participate, depending on the ticket they received and their individual circumstances.

The mayor said homelessness was a national problem, and it was unfair to focus on the city of La Crosse’s response to the issue, without placing it within that broader context. The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have deepened the problem, he noted.

“I would stack up the millions of dollars, the time and staff resources we have invested these past few years on affordable housing, homeless services and quality of life investments against any agency or jurisdiction around,” the mayor concluded.

Meanwhile, at Cameron Park, the ticketing of people living there has continued. It’s understood over a dozen people were ticketed in the park at 3:30 a.m. Thursday morning, according to one person with direct knowledge of the situation.

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

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