Homeless Face Winter Covid Crisis in La Crosse

A local health official is attempting to raise the alarm on the dire situation facing the unsheltered in La Crosse as winter looms and Covid-19 cases remain at worryingly high levels.

In an email to La Crosse County Board members with the subject line “urgent situation,” Gundersen’s Sandy Brekke wrote that she had recently been notified that “there are people who have tested Covid positive who are ill and surviving on our streets with no place to go.”

There’s currently no quarantine/isolation space available for the unsheltered in La Crosse County, according to Brekke, who is a Senior Consultant in the Office of Population Health at Gundersen Health System. La Crosse County’s agreement to rent rooms at the EconoLodge on Rose Street for the unsheltered expired at the end of October. The Catholic Charities Warming Center in La Crosse opened Nov. 1 for the winter season but has fewer spaces available than normal due to covid.

“According to our homeless data, there are more people homeless than we have room for in our shelters,” Brekke wrote to the county board on Wednesday. “Our shelters can not take people who are ill inside and have no place to put people if they become ill while in shelter.”

Nonprofit homeless shelters are struggling from a lack of volunteers, decreased donations, and overall stress from needing to operate beyond their normal capacity.

“For those in shelter, it is a potentially dangerous situation – it is a highly volatile congregate setting,” Brekke stated. “Social distancing is very difficult and if one person becomes ill, there will be no way to stop the spread.”

The Gundersen official suggested local governments should be doing much more to mitigate these problems, rather than relying on nonprofits.

“In a public health emergency, it should not be the responsibility of our nonprofits working with the homeless to lead the response to protect this vulnerable population and our community at large,” she said. “These organizations are providing a vital service to the community and are on the brink of crisis. I have been in contact with Dane, Milwaukee and Eau Claire counties, as well as officials from Seattle and San Francisco.  All these places have local government leading the response to protect the vulnerable populations, including people experiencing homelessness.”

Brekke’s letter comes as covid cases continue to surge in the county, putting a severe strain on hospitals and the county health department. 

“Our health systems are in a crisis state with decreasing room for the ill,” she said. “We need our elected officials to address this situation immediately to protect our community.”

The county and city have been using federal CARES Act funding to provide increased support to those experiencing homelessness, although that assistance has been inadequate compared to the scale of the problem. Over the summer, the city council approved allocating $200,000 in federal funding for emergency shelter for the homeless, which came on top of $50,000 allocated earlier in the year. But there has also been resistance locally to providing financial support to the homeless.

Last month, in a survey of how to distribute federal Community Development Block Grant funding, one council member stated: “The City has contributed too much money for homelessness.” The name of the council member was not published. In the same survey of council members and members of the city’s community development committee, one committee member said, “We should not fund a cent for homelessness, this is not an issue that just the city should be looking at. It’s a much bigger issue.”

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