A letter from the Salvation Army sent to La Crosse’s city council says it has first-hand reports of “rampant drug use, violence, sex trafficking, drug trafficking and other disturbing events” happening at the Econo Lodge.
“We feel these reports have legitimacy due to the same experiences of individuals when they were occupying Houska Park,” Major Alan Hellstrom at the Salvation Army in La Crosse wrote in the four-page letter (below).
Hellstrom said the reports come from people who were previously staying at the Econo Lodge on Rose Street in La Crosse, which has been used over winter to rent rooms for around 100 homeless people — and was just extended through the end of May.
The City of La Crosse Police Department has not put out any statements about sex trafficking. It did report in February during a meeting police were averaging about 100 calls a month at the Econo Lodge, which is about the same amount of calls to police that came over the summer at Houska. Most of those calls, however, Police Chief Shawn Kudron said were “trouble with party” calls, which means they’re not anything criminal or dangerous.
In the letter, Hellstrom expresses concerns and disappointment with basically every facet of how the city has handled the unsheltered population in the area — from allowing them to congregate at Houska Park last summer to moving them indoors at the Econo Lodge over winter to the Maple Grove Motel purchase for bridge housing.
“It is important to restate that we were not in favor of moving the unsheltered individuals from Houska Park into the Econo Lodge, we were in favor of a scattered site model,” Hellstrom wrote.
Hellstrom also noted the Salvation Army, along with other six other unnamed agencies, were expecting the city to award them a contract in mid-November to “open the Econo Lodge operations … in line with the city’s direction.”
Hellstrom wrote that the city planner said this was the only RFP (request for proposal) submitted to the city. Instead of accepting that contract, however, he says La Crosse backed out and awarded a contract to the agency, Karuna Housing, instead.
“While the Karuna Group has served the city defined purpose of managing the warehousing of the homeless, under Karuna Housing management, we have concerns surrounding the accuracy of coordinated entry data, as well as the safety of clients at the hotel,” Hellstrom wrote.
In the midst of all this, the city did hire a homeless coordinator, Brian Sampson, in November. Sampson did not respond to an email from WIZM seeking comment.
The letter was sent before Thursday’s city council meeting, where it extended the unsheltered population’s stay at the Econo Lodge through May.
Also, the city and Salvation Army had a meeting on Thursday afternoon concerning the letter.