La Crosse County, city hope new partnership will better coordinate efforts to reduce homelessness

After years of piecemeal projects, joint plan will increase staff support, use data to find long-term solutions to high rates of homelessness

By Hope Kirwan
People stand in line in the winter for St. John’s Homeless Shelter
The average temperature in Green Bay, Wis. in January is 9 degrees. These people are getting out of the cold and receiving a warm meal and a place to sleep from St. John’s Homeless Shelter in Green Bay. Scott Eastman/The Press Times

For years, La Crosse has struggled with the number of people experiencing homelessness. Brian Sampson, the city’s homeless services coordinator, said that’s partly because no single agency has wanted to take on the responsibility for finding solutions.

“Addressing or owning homelessness has really been kind of like a hot potato, being passed from place to place or group to group,” he said.

A new partnership between the City of La Crosse and La Crosse County hopes to provide new leadership around the community’s response, with the goal of reaching “functional zero” homelessness by the year 2029.

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That doesn’t mean homelessness won’t exist, said Sampson, but the instances that do occur will be rare and brief because of the local safety net system.

“If they do slip through the cracks and become homeless, say 10 people in a given month, then we have the ability as a community to help 11 or more people get into housing,” he said. 

According to the latest estimate, there are 220 individuals without children and 20 households with children considered homeless in the county.

Jason Witt, the county’s human services director, said the numbers are much higher than other cities of a similar size in the state. He said more people fell into homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as new money from local governments and philanthropic organizations went toward rental assistance and other programs.

“That (investment) hasn’t translated into results,” he said. “So it really became clear that it was time for a new approach, and that greater coordination at the system level really should be the key.”

Sampson said public frustration around homelessness has also reached a new high in La Crosse, whether it’s anger around the impact of encampments on city parks or concern about the safety of individuals living outdoors.

“The underlying agreement is that encampments just are not an OK place for our community or for the people who are staying in them,” he said. “So that’s where a lot of the passion and energy is, that we need to do better as a community and help get people inside and do something differently.”

‘We need to adjust our housing options to our people’

In a recently released plan, the city and county outlined their new strategy, which includes hiring a full-time staff member at the county level to help lead the effort. Sampson said the plan is to put new emphasis on collecting and using real-time data about the individuals who are experiencing homelessness in the community, the barriers they face to stable housing and the types of housing options they are interested in.

He said officials already know there is a shortage of affordable housing options in La Crosse, but they need better information from the individuals they hope to house about what type of projects to invest in.

“Instead of asking people to adjust to what housing options we have, we need to adjust our housing options to our people,” he said.

Sampson said the city and county will also make performance data available to the public through a new website, allowing people to track how well the partnership is meeting its goals. He said this transparency is a key part of what differentiates the new partnership from previous attempts to address homelessness in the city.

The plan also calls for increasing the capacity of current case management programs in the county. Witt said providing more support, especially to people struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, could help keep people from falling back into homelessness once they are housed.

The new campaign represents a shift away from providing immediate shelter options in favor of focusing on long term solutions. The county and city used funding to temporarily house people at local motels during the winter months in 2020 and 2021. In 2022, the city tried to create a bridge housing site, but the sale of a local motel for the project fell through.

“We’re always at the same spot or worse at the end of those projects as far as the number of people experiencing homelessness,” Sampson said. “We’ve tried to put the (new) plan into place quickly because we know that we don’t have a short term answer for the number of people who are outside.”

For now, he said the city opened an emergency day shelter this weekend in response to the frigid temperatures descending over the region.

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