Domestic abuse — much of it alcohol-fueled — propels a stunning amount of homelessness in La Crosse, according to a consultant who has been delving into the issue of displaced residents this week.

“Twenty-eight percent of the people coming into homelessness in La Crosse are coming from domestic abuse situations,” Erin Healy said Thursday, citing figures local agencies have given her.

Those rendered homeless because of domestic abuse and violence seek emergency shelter at places such as The Salvation Army, New Horizons Shelter and Outreach Centers, YWCA programs and other locations, as well as resorting to unofficial asylum sites such as nomadic tent encampments.

The figure approaching 30 percent “is the highest I’ve ever seen, and underlying that is alcohol,” Healy told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people at St. Rose Convent Thursday hearing her public report on the project to help La Crosse end homelessness.

“That is my first impression,” she said, as slight murmurs and knowing glances throughout the room affirmed that excessive drinking in the Coulee Region goes far beyond first impressions.

Healy’s impression is not something to discount, as she was one of the key leaders in the 100,000 Homes Project, which placed 105,850 people nationwide from 2010 to 2014.

As such, she is aware of at least cursory statistics from 186 communities and in-depth analyses of several major metro areas, including New York City, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Seattle, among others.

Providers have told Healy that part of the problem is a lack of alcohol treatment options, a situation that merits evaluation, said Healy, a private New York consultant hired by Gundersen Health System’s new Population Health and Strategy Department to help generate a team approach from her study, with a working title of “A La Crosse Collaboration to END Homelessness.”

Healy will present her final recommendations today to Gundersen officials and leaders of government and social service agencies she has huddled with this week.

La Crosse agencies are poised to take major steps toward providing permanent housing for as many as 200 chronically homeless people with a ramped-up collaborative approach, provided that they can secure an inventory of housing, she said.

Doing so helps not only the homeless but also public coffers, she said.

Healy cited examples of savings from housing vs. other remedies in several other cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles.

In Chicago, the daily cost of providing supportive housing for one person is $20.55, compared with $60 for jail, $61.99 for prison, $22 for a shelter, $437 for a mental hospital and $1,201 for a general hospital, she said.

In Atlanta, the breakdown is $32.80 for supportive housing, $53.03 for jail, $47.47 for prison, $11 for a shelter, $335 for a mental hospital and $1,637 for a hospital, Healy said.

For La Crosse, she estimated, the annual cost of one emergency shelter bed could be used instead to pay a year’s rent for two, one-bedroom apartments.

“Crisis systems are very expensive,” she said.

As she mentioned earlier in the week, Healy said the chronically homeless who may need a host of supportive services may amount to only 10 percent of the homeless tally but absorb 80 percent of the support service dollars. Housing them first, with support and case management, saves the public money and releases funds to help the other 90 percent.

National statistics prove that providing housing allows people to focus on solving other challenges they have, such as mental and physical health, poverty and other issues, she said.

For example, a study of Los Angeles found that providing services for issues ranging from health care, to mental health, to substance abuse, to the burden on police departments and a host of other potential needs for a year cost $63,000 in public funds, compared with just $16,000 a year for services to someone living in supportive housing, she said.

A self-described process geek, Healy encouraged those at the meeting — including health and human service agencies, funders, public and private organizations, landlords and Realtors, police and members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who are one of the driving forces behind the homelessness-solving initiative — to create a collaborative system to end homelessness.

Many who process homelessness focus on three “s” explanations:

  • Sick, including people who may have mental or physical illnesses.
  • Sin, involving “bad” people who have made bad decisions and aren’t worth helping.
  • System, in which systemic problems prevent solutions.

“If you think sick or sin, you always will have homelessness,” she said. “Systems are not worthiness or morality plays.”

Solutions depend on creating systems that not only erase present problems but also — and perhaps, more importantly — focus on upstream prevention, she said.

Healy advocates ambitious goals with firm deadlines that, as she said earlier in the week, create a pit in your stomach.

“If you don’t have a pit in your stomach, you don’t have a high enough goal,” she said, adding that tight deadlines unleash innovation.

“In La Crosse, you can do it way sooner than you think you can, if you have work as a team and have a bias toward action,” Healy said.

“The reason you are here is because La Crosse has a high-functioning” group of service agencies who want to do more, she told those attending the meeting.

“You can be a really good, superior Outback, but you could be a Maserati,” she said. “Some are just a broken-down Pinto.”

Instead of languishing in the emergency-response cycle, she said, “Set an audacious goal and a rapid cycle.”

The goal and steps toward it will be up to the local agencies, but, for the sake of example, she listed a few possible scenarios:

La Crosse agencies average monthly placement rate is 11 homeless people moving into housing, according to local agencies, which Healy said is better than many cities.

If a local campaign were set to go from Aug. 1 to Thanksgiving and housed four veterans a month, the estimated number of 14 veterans now homeless would have roofs over their heads by turkey time.

If the goal were to house 50 chronically homeless by the holiday, the average placement rate would need to bump up to 14 a month, she said. And to house both, the rate would have to rise to 18, she said.

One of the concerns raised from the audience was speculation that solving homelessness in La Crosse would give it a reputation as a mecca for services and make it a magnet for homeless people.

Healy recalled La Crosse’s global reputation as a leader in advance directives, which prompted NPR to publish a story headlined, “Why This Wisconsin City Is The Best Place To Die.” She wondered rhetorically whether the city might become known as “The Best Little Town to Be Homeless.”

On a serious note, she said, “The fear of becoming so good at what you do is not worth spending a lot of time on. If you learn how to do it, migrate the knowledge to other communities so they do it well, too.”

Asked about NIMBY responses to establishing quarters for the formerly homeless in neighborhoods, Healy said the key is to educate people about the purpose and show that the moves will strengthen the community rather than weaken it.

“You have the genius here to work on this,” she said.

Sandy Brekke, director of the St. Clare Health Mission in La Crosse and one of the driving forces behind Healy’s visit, said, “I have worked in this sector for 20 years, and I’m really tired of seeing people sick and dying because of homelessness.

“We shouldn’t be standing for it,” said Brekke, who also is a senior consultant in Gundersen’s Population Health and Strategy Department.