In the past, La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds has taken responsibility to be the focal point of the homeless situation in La Crosse.
And, with a recent meeting last week, more onus will be on the city, and perhaps the county, as they announced a partnership in taking a leadership role to address those who have no place to live.
But on La Crosse Talk PM this week, Reynolds alluded that, perhaps the focus shouldn’t simply be what the city is or isn’t doing to help people get off the streets and out of living in parks.
La Crosse Talk PM airs weekdays at 5:06 p.m. Listen on the WIZM app, online here, or on 92.3 FM / 1410 AM / 106.7 FM (north of Onalaska). Find all the podcasts here or subscribe to La Crosse Talk PM wherever you get your podcasts.
The city-county meeting will put more focus, more responsibility on both governments to address the ongoing situation, but judging from the mayor’s tone, his city is already getting all of the blame and taking on most of the burden.
“One of the keys for me is to remember that we keep couching this debate in terms of — and this happened the other night too at the council meeting — they (the homeless) got the parks or they got nothing, and that’s not the truth,” Reynolds said. “That’s not true at all. The parks aren’t the fallback plan. The parks aren’t the only other place that people can go.
“It’s about the city and the parks,” Reynolds continued. “Well, parks aren’t a place to live. You can’t thrive there. You can barely exist there. But somehow, that seems to be the fallback for everybody in this community. It’s parks or nothing, and that’s a fallacy. It’s not the case. And I think a lack of imagination by some in our community that are leading us to that conclusion. And it’s just, it’s utter nonsense.”
Over the past month, the homeless situation has been brought up in numerous city meetings but Reynolds believes the situation is broader than just the city.
“I have not heard one person say, ‘Why don’t we let them camp in county parks for free because there are actual showers and toilets there?’” Reynolds said. “I haven’t heard anybody say that.
“I haven’t heard one person say, ‘Why doesn’t UW-L open up its dorm rooms in the summer so that people can live there?’ Nobody has talked about that. Nobody’s talked about anybody camping on the UW-L campus. Nobody’s talked about the county opening up Hillview nursing home. There’s no outrage because there’s not churches lining up to put people in basements and parsonages.”
For the past two years, the city has taken the brunt of the homeless situation in the area — whether that’s through public outcry or media attention. The stories are mostly about the city renting out a motel for winter because shelters are full, due to a COVID-19 pandemic or converting Houska Park into a campground, so the homeless could stay there.
And the mayor wants to be the focal point, has said on past La Crosse Talk PM interviews, he wants that responsibility. The city has addressed homelessness four times in meetings in the past month.
“For the most part, folks who are living in parks or different alleys, or wherever are just trying to get by,” Reynolds said. “They have nowhere else to go and they need help, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
A month ago, people ended up at a La Crosse Parks Board meeting, of all places, to complain about homeless people being in the parks and near their homes — now that they’re no longer out of sight, out of mind at Houska Park.
Early last week, during that city-county announcement that they are heading a five-year plan to help the unsheltered, around 80 people showed up, while others watched online — and some spoke out.
A few days later, at the monthly city council meeting, a proposed ordinance change to camping in the park — which is already illegal — was put on hold for a month so as to get community input. Many spoke up in opposition, while a few supported the change.
“The NROs (Neighborhood Resource Officers) were not meant to just address homelessness,” Reynolds said. “They were not meant to pick up garbage, but that’s what they’ve been doing. And so, it absolutely is something, however, that they embrace because they understand how impactful they can be for these individuals and for the community as a whole. And so they’re tackling it and they’re doing tremendous work and they’re connecting people with services.
“And some people, frankly, cause problems, and we deal with those roughly 10 people all the time.”
A lot of focus from the public, and agencies that work with homelessness, had been on the Houska Park camping plan that ended last spring. Now, however, the attention has focused on Cameron Park — perhaps because of the Friday farmers market. But this spring and summer, people with no place to live have ended up sprawled across the area, since there is no one place they’re allowed to congregate, and the city gets blamed for letting them stay in parks, and also gets blamed for making them leave.
“I think that’s something that needs to be addressed and people need to talk about that more,” Reynolds said of citing homeless people for being in a park, “so that when we are being scolded, when our personnel and our police are being scolded at a city council meeting about how they’re addressing the needs of the homelessness — as they’re trying to connect them with services.But when we’re being chided by the public for that, I think it’d be nice if someone would say, ‘You know, I don’t know why the county doesn’t open up Goose Island for people to camp for free down there, since there’s toilets and showers.’”
As for giving citations to homeless for being in parks illegally, which happened a lot back in the summer of 2020, Reynolds said, “The goal is not to hand people citations and, in fact, it doesn’t even matter if we hand them citations because Judge (Dennis) Marcou will throw them out anyway, because he doesn’t make him pay.”