Submitted by the Our Wisconsin Revolution-La Crosse Housing First Committee
We believe that housing is a fundamental human right and that ending homelessness in La Crosse by 2025 is a realistic and essential goal for a community with our resources. We call upon local elected leaders throughout La Crosse County to gather the political willpower to prioritize this issue and coordinate a response that ensures that every member of our community is housed safely and with dignity.
We support a true “Housing First” policy, which holds as its goal ending homelessness, rather than hiding and managing it. No one should have to earn their right to safe and dignified housing, they should be offered it unconditionally. Permanent, independent housing for all is an essential foundation for people to survive, have privacy, address personal goals, and improve their quality of life. Safe, dignified housing is not something that should be withheld for socially unacceptable behavior, nor should it be extended as a reward to be earned.
We ask our city and county leaders to reject any temporary or permanent housing proposals that require sobriety or social service participation as a precondition of housing. Complex problems like addiction and poverty are not resolved by controlling the actions of individuals; however, individuals can be free to choose personalized pathways to healing and stability when basic survival needs are met.
We are certain that adequate resources and knowledge exist in La Crosse County to build a swift and sustainable plan to offer housing unconditionally to all who need it. We are confident that strong, determined leadership from the city and county, combined with the operational expertise of local nonprofit organizations, will make our goal of ending homelessness in La Crosse County by 2025 a reality.
The Need for Immediate Local Government Investment and Involvement:
Homelessness is a county-wide problem; consequently, the full cost of implementing a Housing First policy should not fall on any one municipality alone. We call on La Crosse County and its municipalities to invest significantly and immediately in the effort to eradicate homelessness and provide safe, dignified housing to all county residents. If this effort is provided with the resources and focus it deserves, our shelter system will become largely obsolete, and only necessary for short-term, emergency situations. In the meantime, we are faced with a local homelessness crisis that requires an emergency response. Our community has the resources to meet this need.
We call on the city and county to develop a shelter system that allows people the freedom to live with dignity and autonomy. This means a shelter with private rooms, an especially important goal in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and access to comprehensive support services that aid a transition to permanent housing. People living in shelters deserve to move freely, to perform routine tasks, and conduct their lives with limited restrictions. Homeless individuals should have personal freedom to make meaningful choices about how and where to spend their time, like all community members.
Our current shelters lack capacity sufficient to meet demand (1), which many predict will grow in the coming months when the federal eviction moratorium is lifted, student loan payments resume, and supplemental unemployment insurance runs out. It’s also critical that we develop a shelter system specifically for youth who are experiencing homelessness and youth aging out of foster care. There currently exists significant need in this area that is not being met. Local sheltering capacity for runaway or homeless youth is limited to host homes, which have been inaccessible due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Shelter is a basic right that should not be taken away for any reason and in particular at the whim of political or personal motives and changing winds of funding policies. It should be a public good, which means predictable financing, democratic control, and accountability. We have great respect for the charitable and faith-based organizations that have stepped in to attempt to provide assistance due to inadequate public response to the problem of homelessness; however, these agencies are responsible for meeting funding and reporting requirements that are deeply influenced by sharp differences in political opinion at the national and state levels. These strong political winds can negatively impact the local ability to control program requirements and provide consistency. A substantial investment at the local level could stabilize our community response to homelessness and ensure that the shelter and housing options available to local homeless youth and adults meet their needs for safety and autonomy.
Our Budgets Reflect Our Values:
We understand that our goal of bringing homelessness down to zero will take several years to accomplish, and we believe it is feasible to reach that target by 2025. The city should abandon non-essential capital projects planned for 2021 (2) and reallocate funding to this urgent and essential shelter project. La Crosse County should do the same.
The county is in a strong position financially, with general fund reserves of over $20 million and the ability to borrow funds at rates of less than 1% (3). We call on the county to borrow sufficient funds in 2021 to contribute to bold action in support of a Housing First Policy, or spend down its reserves. For any effort to combat homelessness to be effective, the county must decisively join forces with its cities and villages to make life-saving changes to our community infrastructure.
Put simply, this is a question of priorities for our community. We know our county and city leaders and the non-profit and pastoral staff who provide services to the unhoused agree that nobody should suffer through another night on the streets, or in a home where they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. We know that the people of La Crosse County care deeply about our community but too often our budgets reflect a willingness to maintain the status quo. It is time for change. This is an opportunity for our community to be an example to others by taking the bold steps needed to end homelessness, once and for all. Other cities across the U.S. and the world have already shown us what can be achieved (4). It’s time for La Crosse to follow their lead.
(1). Gundersen’s Sandy Brekke, in a November letter to the county board, noted that based on her data, there was insufficient capacity in the city’s two homeless shelters to meet demand.
(2). For example, $1.5 million is planned for renovations to the City Hall lobby over 2021-22: City of La Crosse Capital Budget 2021-25, page 15.
(3). Numbers come from La Crosse County Administrator Steve O’Malley.
(4). At least three U.S. communities – Rockford, Il., Abilene, Texas, and Bergen County, NJ, have ended chronic homelessness. In Helsinki, Finland, homelessness has been almost entirely eradicated by giving people homes unconditionally, as soon as they need it.