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Houska Park declared a temporary campground, so homeless can return this year

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It looks like homeless people who have been spending the winter at La Crosse’s Econolodge will be returning to Houska Park in a few weeks.

The city park board has voted to declare Houska a temporary campground this year, due to a current lack of other space to place dozens of unsheltered people.

Parks, Recreation and Forestry director Jay Odegaard said during Thursday’s meeting the move is being made at the urging of the La Crosse Police Department.

“This is something that we have no choice but to provide a place for these individuals,” Odegaard said.

The city’s lease with Econolodge ends on April 1.

About 100 people had been camping at Houska last year, until they were moved into the hotel in November.

Odegaard said police hope that readmitting unsheltered people to Houska will deter them from trying to live in other outdoor areas of La Crosse.

The campground arrangement is meant only for 2022. Park board member Todd Olson became emotional in asking city, county and state leaders to find something better.

“Roll up your sleeves and figure out a solution for these people,” Olson said.

Odegaard says the city could still opt to extend the lease at the Econolodge, at a cost of around $200,000 a month.

Bruce Jentz, a Green Island resident who lives near Houska, objected to the idea of losing a park for the neighborhood. He did say, however, he appreciates that the homeless need assistance.

“Our folks down on Green Island, and that Augusta Housing area and the duplexes deserve better than to lose another park,” Jentz said, adding neighbors of Green Island Park were given little say when the city replaced a baseball diamond and basketball hoops at the park with new tennis courts.

The decision comes as a city-county effort continues to build bridge housing for the homeless.

A plan to by the Chamber of Commerce building fell through when another buyer came in and bought it for $2.1 million in cash for the property, after news that the city and county were interested in using that area as a hub for unsheltered.

A native of Prairie du Chien, Brad graduated from UW - La Crosse and has worked in radio news for more than 30 years, mostly in the La Crosse area. He regularly covers local courts and city and county government. Brad produces the features "Yesterday in La Crosse" and "What's Buried on Brad's Desk." He also writes the website "Triviazoids," which finds odd connections between events that happen on a certain date, and he writes and performs with the local comedy group Heart of La Crosse. Brad been featured on several national TV programs because of his memory skills.

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