More people living on the streets in La Crosse than ever before, according to one expert who’s been working in the field since 2005.
Kim Cable, the housing and community services director at Couleecap and the vice chair of the La Crosse County Board, spent an hour on La Crosse Talk PM this week discussing the homeless situation in the area, as the campground designation at Houska Park ends this weekend and those who have been staying there since spring have to leave.
Cable said La Crosse County had one of the largest counts across the state for unsheltered at 140, back when agencies conducted the study in July.
“Our unsheltered numbers are second only to Green Bay in the state of Wisconsin, with the exception of Dane, Racine and Milwaukee county,” Cable said. “So we’re at crisis proportions here in La Crosse.
“The numbers that we are seeing locally are unprecedented in my time doing this work. When I first started at Couleecap, we didn’t really have any people staying outdoors. We had people in local shelters, but I’ve never seen our numbers so high as they are now.”
Cable expressed her displeasure with the Houska Park plan by the city, though her alternative was simply getting people “shelter and housing.”
“I think encampments, unless they’re really run pretty strictly and there’s certain rules enforced, they’re not a safe place for people to be,” Cable said. “I think Houska is unhygienic. We’ve had people experiencing assault and there’s been some drug overdoses and things like that. So there’s really not the appropriate level of management down there to really make that an effective spring and summer spot.”
Cable also said the Houska plan doesn’t provide an environment for those in the business of helping the homeless.
“I think it’s a hard setting to try and provide services in,” she said. “Not everybody’s up when people are down there. We have an outreach team that goes down there and a street med team, and we have had community groups bringing meals and so forth, but it’s hard to do any real planning with somebody down there.
“It’s not an ideal setting to try and get somebody into a plan for housing. I mean, there’s a lot going on. There’s no privacy. It’s not an ideal way to provide services for people. I mean, it’s inhumane on some level.”
Cable was not pressed on alternatives to unsheltered people congregating in Houska. If a majority of homeless people weren’t in Houska, would they be spread out across the county — at other parks, in Hixon Forest or elsewhere? And, if so, would it be harder for services to reach them or for them to travel to these services?
Both Couleecap and the Salvation Army are 1.2-mile walks from Houska Park. The YWCA’s REACH Services and Resource Center is 1.4 miles from Houska.
Cable did say providing an encampment did encourage — to an extent — other homeless to come there.
“Well, I think that happens on some level,” she said of homeless flocking to a place like Houska. “I mean, we saw that happening at tent city by International Gardens a few years ago. People would roll into town, stop at the shelter and ask where the free campground was. So you are gonna attract some people. There’s a social network or whatever, I think that happens, that people tell people to come, and of course, that’s the dangerous part of having an encampment. It’s kind of one of those things where you build, If you build it, they will come.
On the other hand, Cable said a vast majority of people they’ve seen over the years are not new.
“I would say 90% of the people who are outdoors are people who have been in this community for years,” she said. “That’s just a ballpark guess on my part, but when we look at the numbers, the names are people who have been around for a long time, and La Crosse isn’t unlike other communities where they’ve seen homeless numbers rise during COVID. That is a nationwide phenomenon. Our numbers have risen more than other parts of the state, I’ll say.”
Also, Cable put down the notion that other communities are dropping people off in La Crosse.
“I have not heard of other communities dumping in our area,” Cable said. “I know people have mentioned that. I don’t see that happening. I’m not saying it might not have happened for one or two people, but it’s not contributing 50 new people to our community.”
With 50 more than this time last year, the plan for agencies and the county is to help get families hotel vouchers, to free up space for singles in the shelters, spending about $168,000 in leftover funding to do so. They’ve also been working on other alternatives lately.
“We’ve been working with people since September on diversion plans, helping people figure out if there’s friends or family they can go to,” Cable said, adding they’ve tried to alleviate transportation costs in those cases. “So we’re trying to get people to move on into situations that are gonna keep them safe over the winter months.”
Last year, the city of La Crosse devoted about $900,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to house people at a north side motel for winter. That’s not the plan this year.
“When Nov. 1 rolls around, I don’t know what we are gonna have for shelter space,” Cable said. “We have two shelters locally that combined, I think have about 80 beds. And if the numbers are still high, then that means somebody’s gonna be outta luck for shelter.
“Now I think the plan is to move people into existing shelter, and if the shelters are full, then my understanding is that the mayor will open up other buildings within the city, like the north side policing station and the South Side Neighborhood Center or something like that.”
Cable didn’t sound like a big fan of that plan, and also seemed to express the need for a “tough love” approach to the problem.
“In previous years, if people wanted to do some changes in their life, they would have to work with somebody to do that, and we have not empowered people to do that,” Cable said. “We’ve kind of taken care of people. We put ’em on the bus, we take ’em to the motel. In the spring time, we bring ’em back down to Houska. And there’s no expectation for any outcomes. There’s no expectation for any type of working on a housing plan. None of that.
“We haven’t expected as much of people as I think we have in the past, and that’s unfortunate because people are adults and should be empowered to make decisions about where they wanna live and how they wanna live and things like that,” Cable added. “So, I think if you take care of people and they don’t have to make any choices, they get used to that on some level. But for the past two years, it’s been kind of like that.”
Other challenges for people is the simple fact that there is a lack of options for permanent housing.
“You can only stress a service system so much and expect to get anything out of it,” Cable said. “I do think it creates other types of problems. We have a shortage of affordable housing stock here, so even if people do wanna move into an apartment, some apartments are out of reach, price wise. That’s another thing that happened during COVID. Rent prices skyrocketed.”
Cable said apartments that Couleecap has helped with have cost between $500-600 in the past and now go for $750 or more, which makes it impossible for those on fixed incomes to afford to live.
The city has tried multiple variations of combating the housing issue, but has been thwarted at every turn, whether that was multiple plans at bridge housing — buying the Chamber of Commerce building downtown or the Maple Grove Motel on the south side — to trying to purchase a former credit union building on Monitor Street for affordable housing, which was voted down by the city council this month.
Meanwhile, the county is engaged in a long-term bridge housing plan, but Cable didn’t have a clear timeline on when that would come to fruition.