Olson: City Should Fund Homeless Shelter

By Jessica Olson, La Crosse Common Council

Right now, La Crosse is fortunate to have many selfless public servants in government and non-profits providing services and resources to our homeless population in this grave time of need. They deserve our thanks.

But those organizations and individuals face an increasingly impossible task if La Crosse City government doesn’t act. Our homeless population is projected to grow rapidly next year. Distancing, quarantine, and isolation have rendered facilities unable to admit anywhere near the number of our unsheltered neighbors as they typically serve. There are fewer volunteers. Exhaustion and frustration are setting in.

The response from City government has been too slow and too scattered. City leaders must stop pointing fingers at County government. Nonprofits must be given the tools they need to do what they do best: provide and administer services. We all prosper when we work together. And, that’s what the people of La Crosse expect.

In the short term, the City should focus its talented staff on finding and funding a single building that can provide safe housing. Maintaining a single building provides efficiency and consistency for delivery of social services.  Ownership by the City will streamline building management decision-making, provide clarity in determining responsibilities, and allow for timely resale to private ownership and restoration to tax rolls once a permanent solution is established.

We should direct City Staff to focus on motels/hotels that meet strict criteria. We should direct our finance department to explore efficient ways to finance the purchase, including federal funding and divestment of idle properties such as the Mississippi Welders Building. We should delay projects such as the City Hall lobby renovation to free up general obligation bond funds for a purchase.

Longer term, we must bring “First Step” re-housing for homeless individuals and families to La Crosse. As a start, we should explore adding two additional floors of rooming house style residential accommodations with communal living space to the new Fire Station. City Planning Staff and County Human Services should work together on investigating if those floors can be added and how to best configure them. If adding to the Fire Station doesn’t work, other locations should be investigated.

We can no longer afford to address homelessness six weeks at a time. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent without long term benefit.  This is both unsustainable and inhumane. Our social workers and advocates have sounded the alarm, and it is past time to respond. Let’s put aside politics as usual and get to work so that our ethical responsibility to care for our unsheltered neighbors doesn’t become an impossible task. 

Jessica Olson is the La Crosse Common Council representative for District 8.

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