Confronting Youth Homelessness in La Crosse County

By Jane Benzschawel and Jessica Thill

Finding compassionate solutions for homelessness, or being unhoused, continues to be a significant issue in La Crosse County, and a frequent topic of conversation among mayoral candidates. Noticeably absent from the many community conversations about homelessness and the need for true Housing First policies are discussions about the dire situation for homeless youth in La Crosse County and the many forms homelessness can take. 

The McKinney-Vento legislation reauthorized in 2015 emphasizes the importance of school stability in the lives of homeless children and youth. As a result, U.S. public schools are required to identify a staff member who serves as a homeless liaison and to report annually on the numbers of homeless youth. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, more than 18,000 students–or 2% of all students–confirmed to their schools that they were homeless during the 2018-2019 academic year. This number is almost certainly underreported. That year, 237 La Crosse County students reported that they were homeless to their school staff. 

Homelessness can be chronic (lasting for more than a year, or four episodes in the last year), episodic (three episodes in the last year), transitional (brief stays in temporary/short-term shelter), or hidden (commonly referred to as “couchsurfing”). Often, the inability to secure safe and stable housing impacts the whole family; however, some youth experience homelessness in isolation, without parents, guardians or other community safety nets. In both La Crosse (21%) and Holmen (25%) schools, the percentage of homeless youth who were unaccompanied was roughly double the statewide average of 12.5% in 2018-2019.

Unaccompanied youth are at a higher risk of exposure to violence, exploitation, and contact with law enforcement. A lack of sufficient services targeted toward meeting their needs can obligate them to engage in survival strategies that further endanger their health and safety.

In most communities, non-profit agencies use federal and state tax dollars to provide services and housing homeless individuals and families. Nationally and in Wisconsin, programs for runaway and homeless youth receive federal funding through the Family & Youth Services Bureau and state funding through the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. These funding sources are intended to prevent the criminalization of homeless youth that happens when contacting law enforcement becomes their only option.  This funding ensures adequate local temporary shelter that addresses crisis stabilization; safe and stable housing; physical, emotional and social well-being; and creating permanent connections with caring adults. La Crosse has not had any state or federally funded Runaway and Homeless Youth programming physically located in the area since the Lutheran Social Services (LSS) RAYS closed the local office in 2018. Since then, the closest runaway and homeless youth programs have been based out of Eau Claire and Stevens Point. LSS RAYS formally ended all runaway and homeless youth programming in December 2020.

Since the departure of LSS, there has been no state or federal funding for homeless youth services in the county. Locally, the Family and Children’s Center operates a Host Homes program, which matches homeless youth with volunteer families for short-term stays, an alternative employed in many communities where comprehensive programming and shelter facilities aren’t available. The host homes program’s capacity has been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, with families and youth expressing hesitation due to increased exposure risk. There is currently no temporary emergency youth shelter facility in La Crosse County, and homeless youth who call 211 are referred to law enforcement for assistance.

Ebony Hyter.

A coalition of local nonprofit agencies with expertise in meeting the needs of marginalized youth (who are statistically much more likely to become homeless) has formed to attempt to meet this urgent local need. Black Leaders Acquiring Collective Knowledge (B.L.A.C.K.), representing the collaborative organization, has applied for federal and state runaway and homeless youth funding in order to meet the needs of the greater La Crosse area. “We as a community have to do better at keeping our youth safe,” says Ebony Hyter, the Vice President of B.L.A.C.K. and a Social Worker/Community Health Worker Supervisor at St. Clare Health Mission. 

“For far too long, we have ignored the cries for help that have come from the youth, and the agencies working closest with them,” continued Hyter. “B.L.A.C.K. is eager to provide some of the support that our youth who face homelessness desperately need to be successful in their education and their lives.” B.L.A.C.K. is continuing to develop partnerships with individuals and community agencies who share their belief that all La Crosse County residents, no matter their age or family circumstance, deserve a safe home.

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Email questions to Top image credit: D Sharon Pruitt/CC BY 2.0.