Homeless in LaCrosse


Every town, big and small, has found itself in the crosshairs of trying to determine its obligation to resolving the homeless crisis in their locality.  This is the story of one town and its resolve to remedy the crisis in its borders.

LaCrosse is a medium sized town situated on the banks of the Mississippi in Western Wisconsin.  It shares a border with Minnesota and Iowa, giving it the name the “Tri-State Area.”  It has a population of about 52,000 but the entirety of the region is about 150,000.  LaCrosse is the county seat of LaCrosse County and the largest city in the region. As with any city of its size or bigger (and some smaller) LaCrosse has a burgeoning homeless population. According to reports in the LaCrosse Tribune, LaCrosse hosts a population of approximately 270 homeless individuals, which is up from approximately 120 last year at the same time.

There are many rumors and facts surrounding the growth of the homeless population, but the fact is that they are here and the city needs to find the best way to serve this population, especially now that the frigid temperatures of a Wisconsin winter are sure to arrive soon.

Last year the city contracted with a local motel and rented out all its rooms to provide a safe place for the population to survive a Wisconsin winter.  Obviously, outside camping is not an option when the temperature drops double digits below zero, and with the wind chill easily reaches 20 degrees below zero or lower.

In the end, this did not end up to be a good solution. Unfortunately there were some in the population that were addicted to drugs and would steal and sell anything to help make money to support their habit.  At the end of the season, there was so much destruction to the motel, many industrial dumpsters were filled with the damaged fixtures and furniture of the motel.  This created an air of suspicion and distrust of the homeless population that began to permeate through the population of the area.

During the summer, the city converted a local park into a campground for the homeless.  Electricity was brought into Houska park along with water.  Tents were pitched in the park and the homeless had their own little city within the city.  The intent was to keep them from sleeping on the sidewalks and in the entrances to businesses as had been the practice in the past.  Meals were brought in, services were provided in the campground, and every attempt to keep them comfortable was made. Now that summer is over and winter is knocking at the door, decisions have to be made to keep them safe this winter. Now that the population has grown, the challenge to provide safe, warm shelter has also grown.

The city has several charities, including the Salvation Army and the Warming Center run by Catholic Charities.  However their are restrictions with each of them that makes providing services a challenge. Anyone with a known substance abuse problem, alcohol or drugs, is prohibited from staying at the Salvation Army.  Since the Salvation Army provides services to families, rules need to be enacted for the safety of all. The Warming Center caters to individuals, and has a capacity of just under 50 people.  The Warming Center also has volunteers that provide meals and clothing to individuals that stay there.

Many solutions were explored by the city. They attempted to purchase a Chamber of Commerce building downtown, but at the last minute another buyer swooped in with a cash offer that prevented the sale to the city.  The city also attempted to purchase a motel that was for sale. There was a lot of pushback to the city for reasons due to the distance of the motel to local resources to the disagreement in using local funding to purchase shelter for the homeless.  Ultimately, a host of maintenance issues found during inspection canceled the purchase.

A host of other possible locations have been explored, including a North Side Police Station, and the most controversial, the Harry J. Olson Senior Center.  Seniors are not comfortable in sharing the resources of the center with the homeless population.  Technically the building is owned by the city, but leased by the board of the Senior Center. During 2021 lease payments were not made by the board of the Senior Center due to COVID and the inability to use it for services to the seniors of LaCrosse.  Since they did not make their payments, the City views this as reneging on their lease.  There was an agreement for the board to purchase the building from the City of LaCrosse for $1 but the sale never went through.  The board of the Senior Center would like to purchase the building now, but is objecting to stipulations the Mayor of LaCrosse is putting into the sales contract that were not there when the contract was introduced. Understandably, the community is divided on using the senior center as temporary housing for the homeless and potentially displacing the senior citizens from their community center.

Harry J. Olson Senior CenterPhoto byHarry J. Olson Senior Center

If you lived in LaCrosse, what would be your solution to the homeless crisis?

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I have had a vast array of life experience as a social worker, world language teacher, and corporate trainer. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to follow me for more stories on local issues and human interest.

La Crosse, WI

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