Homelessness in La Crosse: The Numbers

By Eric Timmons

The article we published last Saturday on the situation facing the unsheltered population in La Crosse has generated a lot of attention and questions.

In part, that article attempted to cast some light on what had happened at the Econo Lodge on Rose Street, which had been used as a temporary shelter for about 30 individuals until the end of October (the hotel is still being used to shelter families, more on that below). The piece leaned heavily on an interview with Julie McDermid of the Coulee Collaborative to End Homelessness and also built off a letter by Gundersen’s Sandy Brekke, who wrote to the county board last week to raise the alarm about the lack of quarantine/isolation space for the unsheltered in La Crosse.

McDermid thought the Econo Lodge was working well as a model shelter and was disappointed when that ended for the individuals who had been staying there. Brekke, in her letter, called for more leadership from local government and warned there wasn’t enough capacity in local shelters for the current unsheltered population in La Crosse. 

But officials at Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Couleecap and the city disagreed with some of McDermid’s points. At least one member of that group has also pushed back against the notion that the homelessness crisis in La Crosse is more severe than normal.

“There’s not an overwhelming want for shelter, we don’t have people banging down the door to get in,” Krista Coey, Director of Social Services at the Salvation Army in La Crosse said earlier this week. “If that happens, we will absolutely adjust, just like we always do.”

So what really is going on? Below is an attempt to provide some transparency on this issue, which is one we plan to continue reporting on over the coming weeks and months.

Shelter capacity

The two shelters for the homeless population in La Crosse are the Warming Center, run by Catholic Charities, and the Salvation Army shelter. Numbers are likely to tick up as the weather turns colder, and may already have over the last few nights, but both shelters have been operating below capacity in recent weeks. The Salvation Army shelter currently has a capacity of 50 and, on average recently, has had about 30 occupants. At the Warming Center, the capacity is 34 and on an average night recently has been providing shelter to about 20 people. This means there are 84 beds available and an average of 50 are being used. The numbers come from the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities as part of a statement released Tuesday. The question of Covid-19 quarantine/isolation space for the unsheltered remains an issue, although the county is planning to offer hotel vouchers to meet that potential need.

How many people are sleeping outside in La Crosse?

This number is difficult to pin down, but there are currently several encampments of homeless people in La Crosse. On Wednesday, McDermid said the most recent estimate is that 45 people known to local agencies are sleeping outside. She said the true number is likely higher, which would put the total number requiring shelter over the capacity available (an estimated 95 people versus 84 beds). Coey, however, says the capacity could be increased if the weather turns dangerously cold.

Why do some people avoid the shelters?

There are many possible answers to this question, and the best people to answer it are those currently experiencing homelessness. We hope to dig into this question in more detail over the coming weeks. But one reason may be the complications created by COVID-19. At the Salvation Army shelter, residents need to sign in and out and must have a qualifying reason to leave the shelter, such as a job interview or a medical appointment. At the Warming Center, residents have to wear masks all the time, including while they sleep. They also must leave the Warming Center during the day. Asked why she thought people were staying outside rather than using the shelter, Coey, said, “The community has made it very easy to not check into shelter.” She noted that people were bringing services to the unsheltered at city parks, including food and clothes. “Why would individuals be encouraged to leave and use the shelter and isolate when they don’t need to,” Coey stated. When the 30 individuals who were being housed at the Econo Lodge were moved on, the large majority decided not to go to the Warming Center, where they had been offered beds, Coey said. According to McDermid, part of the explanation for that was because the hotel provided those individuals more space, freedom and dignity. One of those who left the hotel was found dead a week later in a storage unit. According to representatives of Couleecap, Salvation Army and Catholic Charities, the man was offered a bed at both shelters. “When that individual chose to stay in the storage unit while the weather was still mild, despite case manager efforts to persuade them otherwise, we had to ultimately respect their decision,” a statement from the three nonprofits said. “We are all greatly saddened by their passing, as they were cared for by many of our employees.”

The Econo Lodge

The Econo Lodge began to be used on a small scale as a shelter in July. That was significantly expanded in September and October at substantial cost (close to $400,000). As that funding, which was federal money that came through the county, began to run out, there was a plan pushed by McDermid to keep the hotel running as a shelter for families and individuals through January. But that plan died for lack of support. In part, this was because there were question marks over whether the funding in McDermid’s plan could be obtained. However, over 20 families are still being housed at the hotel, with the cost covered by the city and other partners. “Currently that is where there is a need, there is not enough shelter for all families that need it,” said Caroline Gregerson, Community Development Administrator with the city. “This is an issue currently being worked on.”

How much money has been spent?

Both the city and county have diverted significant financial resources into the homelessness crisis this year, as have nonprofits. The city of La Crosse and the Collaborative are currently spending $120,000 per year to fund outreach workers at Independent Living Resources. Those workers are tasked with connecting the unsheltered with services and encouraging them go to the shelters, if that’s possible at the time. In addition, the city has put $397,000 into funding to address homelessness issues since the start of the pandemic, and La Crosse County has also invested a large sum, including nearly $400,000 put into the hotel project for September and October. A lot of the money has come from the federal CARES Act, a massive covid relief bill passed earlier this year by Congress. On Dec. 3, the city’s finance and personnel committee will be asked to approve $100,000 in Community Development Block Grant Funding for emergency shelter services, which would then go to the common council for final approval. But, looking ahead, leaders of the Salvation Army, Couleecap and Catholic Charities disagree with McDermid’s assertion in last Saturday’s article that there are resources to provide shelter for everyone who needs it in La Crosse. “Contrary to statements in the article, there are not ample resources available to address ongoing needs,” officials at the three charities said in a statement. But what funding is available now, or could be available in the future, remains a question of politics. For example, La Crosse Common Council member Jessica Olson is currently proposing that the city consider delaying capital spending on a project to renovate a lobby at City Hall and instead use those funds on a shelter project. Whether Olson’s proposal can win support from the council remains to be seen.

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