The twice-a-year Point in Time homeless count of 25 people living outside overnight in La Crosse this week was seven more than a year ago, but that only steels the resolve of advocates in their quest to end homelessness.
“We’re trending in a direction we do not want to see, obviously,” said Kim Cable, housing and community services director at Couleecap Inc., which conducts the counts in January and July. “On any day, there can be different numbers.”
The tallies, part of national Point in Time counts at the same time, pivot on the number of people using shelters, Cable said Friday, adding, “When it is super-cold, it drives people in, but when it is more temperate like Thursday, more stay outside.”
The count began at 3:30 a.m. Thursday, when five teams of volunteers fanned out through La Crosse and Onalaska in search of those whose only shelter was outside. The temperature was in the 20s, and snow was falling, Cable said.
At the time, the La Crosse Warming Center was full, but six beds remained vacant at The Salvation Army, she said.
Twelve people were counted in downtown parking ramps or other outdoor locations, 11 were in what is called Tent City north of Riverside Park and two were behind stores, Cable said.
“Our message to the community is that we could have housed everybody,” she said.
One advantage of the counts is that, even among individuals who don’t want to use shelters, they are identified and can be connected with agencies to pinpoint their needs and, perhaps, obtain housing, she said.
Some people who live outdoors hesitate to go to a shelter because of mental health issues that result in anxiety in such places, Cable said.
“On the other side, we don’t want to see people dying on La Crosse streets,” she said.
The Salvation Army recently lifted its policy of zero tolerance for people who have consumed alcohol and replaced it with a “harm reduction” rule under which someone who is not impaired and presents no danger can stay there. The Warming Shelter always has allowed overnight residents, even if they had been drinking.
“With both under a harm reduction policy, more people can stay,” she said.
The La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, which was formed last year and was able to house more than 15 veterans before its Christmas deadline, will continue to attack the problem, Cable said.
The collaborative has helped establish a priority list to help meet the needs of homeless individuals and families.
“The housing priority list targets people with barriers,” she said. “When we know people, we can develop relationships with them and get people connected to services.”
An optimistic indicator is that initial entries on the list had been homeless for four or five years, while those seeking shelter more recently have been homeless for two years, Cable said.
“Two years is still a long time, but we are chipping away at chronic homelessness,” she said. “As a community, we are making an impact.”