La Crosse mayor: Community faces challenges ‘well beyond funding’ in caring for rising homeless population

Even with federal recovery funds available, La Crosse is poised to declare a state of emergency, shelter people in city buildings this winter

A dresser, a trash can, and other belongings are kept near trees in the park.
Furniture and other belongings are kept at Reindahl Park on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The mayor of La Crosse said the city may be forced to declare a state of emergency to help care for the “vast” number of people who are unsheltered in the community and surrounding areas.

The city’s struggle highlights that despite an influx of funding from federal pandemic recovery efforts, Wisconsin communities continue to grapple with the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in the state.

Last year, La Crosse leaders were optimistic that the federal funding received during the pandemic would help the community reach long-term solutions to provide services to those living without shelter. That included working with La Crosse County to create a bridge housing site for people looking for affordable housing.

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On Wednesday, Mayor Mitch Reynolds said at a press conference that those dollars are still available. But he said there are “significant challenges that have to be addressed that go well beyond funding,” including a lack of available housing and better access to treatment options for addiction and other mental health challenges.

La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds speaks at City Hall
La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds outlines the city’s emergency plans for what he called a “vast” number of people who will need shelter this winter at a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Hope Kirwan/WPR

Reynolds said the city has been meeting with stakeholders like health care systems, nonprofits and faith groups since April to create a strategy for moving forward. But despite the extensive planning, stakeholders have only been able to develop a temporary emergency plan to get through the winter months.

He said the plan focuses on maximizing existing shelters operated by nonprofits like the Salvation Army, providing emergency rental assistance and trying to connect people with family, friends or neighbors who may be able to house them through the coldest months.

Reynolds said the city has also developed a plan to use city-owned properties like neighborhood centers, a police station and the ice arena to create emergency shelter space. The move would require an emergency decree, something Reynolds said he’s prepared to do at the direction of community agencies.

But Reynolds also said the plans may not be enough.

“Based on the breadth of the crisis and the lack of progress in identifying winter shelter spaces, there’s a very high likelihood that this winter will include dozens and dozens of individuals sleeping unsheltered on the streets of our community and surrounding communities,” he said at the press conference. “It is because of that, likely, that our medical centers will see a massive influx of individuals in their emergency departments. This is going to cause a significant strain on our medical health system in our community and surrounding communities.”

Last winter, the city paid $700,000 to house people without shelter at a local Econolodge motel from November to March. But Reynolds said officials were told by some agencies that creating another unofficial shelter at a motel “was simply not acceptable this year.”

“In fact, we were told in some ways that it did more harm than good and was an impediment to lasting progress,” he said.

In March, WKBT reported that the head of the Salvation Army of La Crosse raised concerns about reports of drug use and sex trafficking happening at the Econolodge. The La Crosse Tribune reported in June that the agency managing the housing program called those reports “overblown.”

Reynolds said the city does not have a solid estimate for how many people will need shelter this winter. Not only are there dozens of people living at a campground created at a city park this summer, La Crosse also expects to see individuals come into the city from smaller communities, regional campgrounds and even people living in the national wildlife refuge along the Mississippi River.

“We have at times focused on how can we find shelter for 120 individuals? How can we find shelter for 150 individuals? At the end of the day, we’re going to be deficient,” he said, calling those “big numbers” for the city of roughly 52,000 people.

Around 133 individuals and eight families were housed last winter at the Econolodge motel.

Reynolds called on the county, state and federal governments to help and respond to what he called “intense socioeconomic challenges” that have led to an increase in people needing housing and services across the country.

Monica Kruse, chair of the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors, said she was not surprised to see La Crosse officials move toward an emergency declaration, but that the county was not at that point. She said the county has tried to help the city address homelessness, including contributing funding for bridge housing locations in the county.

The city had planned to purchase a motel to create one of those sites, but that sale fell through in March.

Kruse said the county currently has a request for proposals for a family bridge housing project, which she said they hope to select a proposal in December.

“We’re looking more at long-term solutions like putting people in houses that they will live in for a long time rather than just sheltering for the winter. So I think we are taking on different parts of this problem and trying to solve it,” Kruse said.

Kruse said everyone in the community has a responsibility to help care for people experiencing homelessness, especially during the winter months. She said there is not a simple answer to whether the responsibility to find and fund solutions falls on the city or on the county more broadly. But Kruse said La Crosse is one of thousands of communities across the country wrestling with how to help the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness.