La Crosse Coalition Works To Provide More Spaces, Services For Homeless

3-Phase Plan Includes Warming Shelter Expansion, Daytime Center And Transitional Housing


John Page usually spends his days searching for computer drafting jobs at the La Crosse Public Library. His evenings are spent at the Warming Center downtown. Page sleeps in one of the facility’s recliners during the cold, winter months. He likes to pick a plush, turquoise one in the corner near the TV.

“But I don’t watch that much TV — I’m too busy trying to figure out what I’m going to do the next day,” he said.

People who, like Page, are without a home have few places in La Crosse they can turn to for shelter. However, a coalition of nonprofits, businesses and educational institutions is trying to change that by creating more spaces people can use not only for shelter, but for counseling and job assistance as well.

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The coalition helped the Warming Center move to a new location in November, more than doubling it in size. The center now provides showers, laundry and a kitchen for the guests — services the previous, more-cramped location couldn’t provide.

Page is one of at least 35 people who sleep at the Warming Center on any given night. He said there are many reasons people come to stay at the center. Some people have lost their jobs, while others have lost their homes.

“Some come in from divorce, some from their attempts to stop from drinking,” he said. “Then there are those that come from jail and they need a place to stay. So this is actually a very good place for people to start their life again.”

The Warming Center expansion was just one of three phases the coalition is working on to provide more services to homeless people in the area. The second phase involves opening a daytime drop-in center, which organizers hope to open within the next few weeks in downtown La Crosse. People will be able stop in for a cup of coffee or a sandwich. They’ll also be able to meet with staff from area nonprofits that work on health care, jobs and housing.

Mary Fitzpatrick is the coordinator of the Warming Center, which is run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse.

“Whether they’re a vet, connecting them with the VA that has wonderful programs for the homeless, or CouleeCap, who has transitional housing programs for the homeless (and) mentally ill, it’ll be a real collaborative effort that’s expanded even more,” said Fitzpatrick.

The drop-in center will be run by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Sister Karen Neuser, who is helping coordinate the effort, said creating a daytime space shows people who are homeless that many people in the community truly care about them.

“And if people care, you can actually face life and go on,” she said. “Without having somebody really care, you lose hope. You lose really any impetus to go further.”

The third phase of the initiative is building transitional housing and a job training center downtown within a year. Rick Staff is president of Gerrard-Hoeschler Realtors, which has been instrumental in purchasing and finding properties for the project.

“There’s a garage there now, and so we can start with construction skills training program immediately because there’s a vacant lot — so room to learn how to put together walls and those things,” he said. “But eventually we hope to have food service skills and other related skills that people can take into the wide community to find a job. Eventually we’ll need a facility and when we build that, we hope to have some housing there to serve the same groups.”

Staff and his wife created a nonprofit, Shelter Development, to raise money for the multi-stage initiative. They’ve also purchased the building that houses the Warming Center so it can remain a shelter in perpetuity.

John Page said all the coordinated efforts should help people in his situation — jobless and homeless — find a new beginning.

“It’s the coming together of the community with resources and people to try to put their lives together again,” he said. “There’s a family quality about this.”

A positive quality, Page says, that can make the La Crosse community stronger in the long run.