The La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, having whittled away at the numbers of displaced veterans and chronically homeless people, is next targeting families with children to get settled into housing.
The collaborative, which has identified almost 15 homeless families, set a goal to secure housing for at least 10 of the families by Jan. 31, said Julie McDermid, the collaborative’s project manager.
That goal was among several topics, including the Landlord Liaison Project that is nearly ready to be unveiled, McDermid raised Thursday during an information exchange meeting with the Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area.
The collaborative had tackled veteran and chronic homelessness in what it calls 100-day “sprints” in its first two ventures since it was formed last year. Members set the target last week after planning sessions with Erin Healy, a New York consultant who helped local agencies coordinate forces last year.
The group set a target of housing 15 veterans by Christmas, achieved that and now has housed more than 20, McDermid said. Similarly, in its sprint to end chronic homelessness, it found quarters for 20 in the 100 days it allotted itself.
In its new sprint, some of the 15 families, which include about 60 people, are at The Salvation Army, while others may be staying in motels or couch surfing with relatives and friends, McDermid said.
“Homeless families are a little harder to find, because some are under the radar,” either intentionally, because of embarrassment, or unintentionally because they are not in community support programs, she said.
“What’s worse to me — shocking — is that over 100 children are doubled up” with one or more families living together, McDermid said.
That doesn’t include the number of children — roughly another 100 on any given day — the La Crosse School District considers homeless.
“Part of the problem is people don’t reach out when there are warning signs,” she said, but increasing the sense of being a community where everybody is willing to help can help people avoid the crash into homelessness.
McDermid lamented the statistic that 54 percent of La Crosse households are living on the brink of financial insecurity, in which one lost paycheck could propel them toward homelessness. The city’s figure is far worse than the countywide number of 40 percent, recorded in the United Way’s statewide ALICE report. The acronym stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
In the city, the collaborative has a list of 120 people who meet the criteria that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to classify someone as homeless, such as having been homeless for a full year within the past three years, homeless two to three times within a certain period and other stipulations, McDermid said.
Many people who end up homeless have their lives well under control until suddenly losing a job, she said.
The Landlord Liaison Project that the collaborative is crafting with the cooperation of city and county housing officials is intended, in part, for just such cases and to address housing problems of people with difficult histories, such as criminal convictions, eviction or credit problems, McDermid said.
“The Landlord Liaison could get ahead of that — not just getting housing for homeless but to go upstream and prevent homelessness,” she said.
“I want our community to establish a flexible fund” to help people who need a boost but don’t qualify for HUD money, she said.
“If somebody needs $200 to get into sustainable housing to get out of homelessness,” that should be available, she said, underscoring that the collaborative’s efforts focus on arranging for long-term solutions instead of Band-Aids.
“We have to have a variety of solutions and flexibility,” she said.
The collaborative also is seeking a 501©(3) agency to apply for a grant through Wisconsin Voices for Recovery, a statewide peer-run program. Although the deadline has passed for applying with no takers, the state views the La Crosse area as a likely candidate, McDermid said.
Such a grant, ranging from $32,000 to $72,000, could provide one or two peer outreach workers to help people rebound from addiction and/or homelessness, said McDermid, who is a peer counselor herself who has worked for agencies such as Independent Living Resources.
“Who wouldn’t want somebody by their side who has been through it?” said McDermid, who has battled and overcome her own mental health issues, including being hospitalized involuntarily under what is called Chapter 51.
Citing herself as an example, she said, “Chapter 51 was one of the scariest days of my life, when my rights were being taken away to put me in a hospital against my will, represented by an attorney I had met just five minutes before.”
Having a peer to support her would have been invaluable to help withstand the trauma, she said.
Separately, the collaborative has secured funding to hire two peer specialists for outreach to schools, jails and other community agencies, she said.
Peer assistance would be especially helpful for people being released from jail, said Aaron Rasch, who is co-director of the mental health coalition’s board and statewide coordinator of Peer Run Organizations, as well as working for Project Proven. The latter is a program at Western Technical College that strives to help people transition from jail back into society, including obtaining a job and housing.
“There is a problem with recidivism if they don’t have a job,” Rasch said, adding that lack of stability often causes former prisoners to return to the lifestyle that landed them in jail.
“Being discharged into homelessness is a problem in our community,” McDermid agreed. “We need to have a better plan.”
TOMAH — “Fugitive sand” was a major issue Thursday during a Department of Natural Resources hearing to approve an air pollution permit for a Monroe County sand mine.
The DNR heard complaints about dust flying off sand piles and uncovered trucks during the 90-minute hearing at Tomah City Hall. The DNR took comments on Wisconsin White Sand’s air pollution permit for a sand facility in the town of Byron.
Deb Severson said she saw three uncovered trucks during her trip from Sparta to Tomah City Hall.
“That’s a huge source of fugitive sand,” Severson said.
The facility already has a construction permit that was issued before Wisconsin White Sand bought the facility, which dries, sorts and stores industrial sand. No mining is done on the site, which covers 240 acres.
The DNR issued preliminary approval of the air pollution permit Sept. 22, and a public hearing was requested two weeks later.
Town of Byron chair Barbara Meltesen said she hears complaints about dust from town residents. She said Wisconsin White Sand has been willing to work with the town and noted that several sand mines operate in the area.
“That fine sand is creating problems in our township,” Meltesen said. “We’re surrounded by sand mines.”
Mark Hammers of the DNR’s South Central Region air program, said fugitive dust is regulated by state law and that the air pollution permit will make it easier for the DNR to enforce existing standards.
DNR compliance engineer Jared Nelson urged anyone who sees sand flying off trucks or sand domes to contact local law enforcement.
Nelson said sand operations are required to monitor sand dust and that the DNR has ways of monitoring violations.
“You can quickly determine if a facility is not telling you the truth or if they’re telling you the truth,” he said.
Wisconsin White Sand owner John Folino said his company intends to run an environmentally responsible operation. He said the company has an obligation to its employees and neighboring residents.
“We want to respect the area — we care about our neighbors,” Folino said. “We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. We can’t afford to do it.”
Sue Lindem, DNR environmental engineer supervisor, said sand mines have a market incentive to keep their product from flying away.
“They don’t want to lose that stuff any more than we want to have it on our properties,” Lindem said. “That’s what they’re getting paid for. That’s their product.”
Terrell Pankey, White Sand executive director, said the facility is “small time” compared to larger facilities in the area. He said “90 percent” of the facility’s employees are from the “local area.”
Severson expressed broader concerns about sand mining and its rapid development in the area. She said there have been many complaints across western Wisconsin about the impact of mining but that approval of new mines “keeps marching on.”
“Frac sand mining came in this huge rush, and we’re not sure existing standards are accurate and appropriate,” she said.
Katie Groves of Sparta said sand mining is having a negative effect on the area. She said haze from a sand facility in Sparta is visible to anyone driving on Interstate 90.
“I do not give up on my beautiful state of Wisconsin, I do not give up on my beautiful Monroe County, and I do not give up on clean, unpolluted water; clean, unpolluted air or clean soil for future generations,” Groves said. “I don’t believe we need to live in a world in which we must choose between clean water and good jobs and breathable air and a healthy economy.”
“We want to respect the area — we care about our neighbors. We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. We can’t afford to do it.” John Folino, Wisconsin White Sand owner
The La Crosse County Solid Waste Department is under new leadership while the county faces a federal lawsuit prompted by allegations of gender-based discrimination against Hank Koch, who recently retired from his position as the department’s director.
A former scale operator at the landfill filed a lawsuit against the county under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming she had been verbally abused by Koch, faced retaliation after complaining about it and effectively lost her job because of Koch’s actions.
According to court documents, the woman first complained to the county’s Human Resources Department in January 2014 that Koch verbally abused fellow female subordinates in the solid waste department. She quit her job in late June 2014 and filed a written complaint with the county in August 2014, including herself as a victim of the abuse and alleging that she was retaliated against because of her previous complaint.
Her lawsuit further claims that after she quit, she learned that Koch would no longer have supervisory authority over her former position. She applied for her old job, but another applicant with no scale experience was hired.
In October 2014, the woman filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which investigated and in August 2016 determined that there was “reasonable cause to believe” that the woman’s civil rights under Title VII were violated.
In March, the U.S. Justice Department notified the woman that it wouldn’t pursue legal action against the county in the matter, and the woman filed her lawsuit against the county in June, seeking reinstatement in her former job, back pay and other compensatory damages. A conference to discuss a possible settlement of the case is scheduled for Wednesday.
The attorney representing the county’s insurance provider filed court documents seeking dismissal of the lawsuit and denying there was a civil rights violation. The documents also allege that the county is entitled to immunity on some allegations, that the plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies, that any damages were not due to county policy or practice and that the county acted in good faith with no intent to retaliate or do harm.
The La Crosse County Board’s meeting last month ended with a closed-session discussion of the complaint and the staffing of the solid waste department.
County Administrator Steve O’Malley said Tuesday that Jadd Stillwill, the operations manager, will take on the role of deputy director, filling in for Koch while continuing his operations management. Randy Nedrelo, who has been deputy director, was reassigned to work in the household hazardous materials operation.
“He’s in the best position to take over,” O’Malley said of Stillwell, who was hired in 2007. “We’re going to take some time to evaluate the department. For now, this was enough change.”
Koch was hired as solid waste director in April 2009. His cell phone number was no longer in service and he could not be reached for comment Thursday.