Homelessness: “We Have Everything We Need to Shelter Everyone”

By Eric Timmons

When an agreement to rent rooms at the EconoLodge on the northside of La Crosse ended Nov. 1, over 30 homeless people were turned out onto the street to find other shelter. One of those individuals, unsure of his options, went to live in a storage unit, where about a week later he was found dead.

The man is believed to have fallen and passed away before he could get help, said Julie McDermid of the Coulee Collaborative to End Homelessness (CCEH). She’s frustrated about a breakdown in coordination that resulted in people being asked to leave the motel. Those events have led to a situation where there’s limited shelter and no quarantine space available for the homeless in La Crosse, leaving some who have tested positive for COVID-19 to sleep on the streets.

On Friday, McDermid submitted her resignation as project manager with CCEH, although she’ll stay in the position through February. She remains hopeful about the level of support in the community for the unsheltered, but is disappointed by the inability of local government and nonprofit agencies to come together and take action, despite ample financial resources to do so.

The EconoLodge had been used as a shelter for individuals and families experiencing homelessness from July through October, starting out with a small number of rooms, and then expanding to most of the hotel in September and October. La Crosse County, using federal funding, covered the increased cost of those final months. 

In addition to about 30 individuals, the motel was housing over 23 families with close to 40 children. According to McDermid, the motel was working well as a shelter. Housing was found for some of the families, connections to services were available, partnerships were formed with the school district, key agencies and the police.

The idea to expand use of the hotel beyond the small number of rooms that were being used came about in late August as COVID-19 cases were beginning to increase. The Catholic Charities warming center shelter was not due to open until Nov. 1 and the Salvation Army shelter was on lockdown, making it more difficult for people to gain entry. Meanwhile, dozens of people were sleeping outside in Cameron Park, where tensions between the unsheltered and the police had been simmering for months.

After four people who identified as homeless died of overdoses and also were discovered to have been covid-positive, a meeting between the county health department, the city, and other agencies was held, McDermid said. There was concern that a major outbreak could occur among the unsheltered. The solution agreed on was to expand use of rooms at the EconoLodge. It was an expensive one as, in addition to renting rooms, staffing had to be paid for. But as McDermid points out, the CARES Act, a covid relief bill passed by Congress, meant unprecedented resources were available. The county used federal funding to put an estimated $162,000 into the cost of shelter at the hotel for part of September and all of October, plus around $161,000 to cover staff. 

McDermid essentially moved into the hotel for two months to manage staffing, with some rooms controlled by the health department for use as isolation spaces for covid cases. Only one person tested positive upon entry to the motel, and they were immediately isolated and received care, she said. Around 12 positive cases went through quarantine at the motel with support from the health department. Between July and the end of October, a total of about 130 people experiencing homelessness stayed at the motel.

“I can’t even tell you the amount of progress that a whole lot of people made that got ripped apart when they were sent out into the cold on November 1,” McDermid said.

“A Big Fat Mess”

As the clock ticked down to Oct. 31, when the county’s agreement to rent rooms at the motel was set to expire, there was a realization among local agencies, the city and the county, that a new arrangement needed to be found. Although the Catholic Charities warming center was due to open Nov. 1, and the Salvation Army shelter was available, it was unclear if they would be able to meet demand and neither were able to offer quarantine space.

What’s particularly frustrating for McDermid is that financial resources were in place to find a solution. She had come up with a budget to keep the motel, which has 105 beds, running as a shelter through January, covering most of the coldest part of a winter that looks likely to face a continuing covid surge.

McDermid says the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration donated $200,000 earlier this year, no strings attached, to deal with the homelessness crisis. About $130,000 of that total remains, unspent. The city and the county also had let it be known they had additional funding available. To reduce the cost of staffing, McDermid offered a plan that would have various local agencies make staff available at the motel.

On the Tuesday before Oct 31, when the agreement to rent the motel was due to expire, a meeting was held. Representatives of the city, county, various local nonprofits and health care providers were present. There was discussion of a plan at that meeting, McDermid said, but it was never properly followed up on, and a tentative agreement that was reached fell apart. 

“It was a big fat mess,” McDermid said.

By that weekend, over 30 homeless individuals were forced to leave the EconoLodge. Some families and a small number of individuals with serious health issues remained with agency support. But the plan is for the remaining rooms being occupied to be gradually reduced through December, according to McDermid.

“One of the reasons why I’m leaving my position is I’m disgusted right now that we actually have the financial resources, we have everything we need to be able to shelter everyone adequately and to provide an isolation shelter as well as safe daytime space for everyone and we’re not doing it,” McDermid said. “We’re not doing it because there is a lack of coordination and leadership and collaboration to be able to use those resources.”

McDermid said part of the problem is in-fighting between agencies and a lack of leadership from the city and county. But she’s also quick to emphasize that in her view both the city and county have done much more than many realize to help the local unsheltered population. Both entities have been pouring federal funding into the problem, although that effort has not been adequate to meet the need, which has been made more complex by covid.

Winter Looms

At present, McDermid estimates that there are close to 40 people sleeping outside in La Crosse, based on an estimate from the police department. She said the true number likely is higher and even the low estimate exceeds local shelter capacity. Worryingly, months of dangerously cold weather still lie ahead. Even those who find shelter at night will have difficulty finding places to go during the day, McDermid said, due to covid restrictions.

In the past week, there has been action to at least keep anyone who has tested positive for covid off the streets. On Friday, La Crosse County announced it was putting together a short-term program to give hotel vouchers to those who test positive or have symptoms, although key details of that plan remain to be worked out.

“It wasn’t until this week that there was some real squawking happening,” McDermid said. “We had some people turn up positive in our health systems and they were calling up around the shelters saying what do we do with people and that’s when all the fingers started being pointed.“

Gundersen’s Sandy Brekke, who has been working on the homelessness situation with McDermid and others, wrote to the county board this week, highlighting the fact that there’s currently no quarantine/isolation space available for the unsheltered in La Crosse. Brekke’s letter suggested leadership in local government should be taking command of the situation. While McDermid gives the city and county plenty of credit for their efforts, she does agree with Brekke on that point.

“We needed our city and county to hold everyone accountable,” McDermid said, meaning agencies like Couleecap, the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, who she feels could be better coordinating their efforts.

Earlier in the year, when money was flowing to the city and county through the CARES Act, all the groups could have come together and perhaps looked at buying a property to provide shelter throughout the pandemic, or some other solution. A lack of planning meant that did not happen, McDermid said.

Permanent Housing

In the longer-term, the solution to the homelessness crisis is permanent housing, McDermid noted. Again, financial resources to rent properties for the homeless are available locally, she said, but finding housing units poses a problem. Couleecap and Catholic Charities currently have funding to provide 20 housing units, for example, while the La Crosse Housing Authority is attempting to obtain 40 additional housing vouchers for the unsheltered. In both cases, McDermid said it will be difficult to find housing to rent. There’s less turnover in the rental market due to covid, she said, and it can also be difficult to find landlords who are willing to work with the different programs.

McDermid still sees the EconoLodge as the best short-term solution to get through the winter and reduce the spread of covid among the unsheltered community. The owners of the motel are willing to enter a new agreement, McDermid said. She’s hopeful a new plan can be agreed on, whether it involves the motel or a new solution.

Kim Cable, who works for Couleecap and is a member of the La Crosse County Board, told the La Crosse Independent on Thursday that she was ready to work on a new plan.

“We really need to come up with a temporary shelter,” Cable said. “That’s going to be my primary interest here, to see if we can’t bring people together to see to what options we have available.”

It’s understood that county officials are discussing the issue with the city and that some kind of action could be taken at the county level in December. That action, if it happens, will come too late for the man who died after leaving the EconoLodge on Nov. 1, an incident that hit McDermid hard. It’s part of the reason she decided to submit her resignation from CCEH.

“I think it’s unforgivable that anybody had to die in all of this when the money was there,” she said. “That even one person passed away is just unbelievable to me, it’s just unforgivable.”

Top image shows a man sleeping on a bench in Cameron Park, downtown La Crosse on Saturday. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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