Tom and Marie Bouchard and their three sons are the First Family of Francis Homes, a new Coulee Region effort based on the idea that no child should be raised in a shelter.
The Bouchards, who bounced from pillar to post the past several years and endured two evictions, earn that title as the initial family placed under the Francis Homes program, an initiative of Gerrard-Hoeschler Realtors in La Crosse with the ultimate goal of ending local homelessness.
The family’s opportunity arose as Tom talked to Rick Staff, president and general counsel of Gerrard-Hoeschler, about renting an apartment but not being able to afford one they had considered.
Tom quoted Staff as saying, “I’m working on something. Let me get back to you.”
At the time, the five Bouchards — Tom, 38; La Crescent native Marie, 36; Eric, 15; Zack, 13; and Ben, a rambunctious 3-year-old — were crammed into a one-bedroom motel room for which they were paying more than they could afford — $820 a month — on the South Side of La Crosse, and the clock was ticking on having to come up with another month’s rent.
Staff did get back to the Bouchards, whose plight moved the Francis Homes project ahead of schedule.
“This is a wonderful family who had timed out of shelter,” Staff said in an interview. “Our mission is to find housing.”
That mission is a natural progression from two other projects that Staff and his wife, Nancy Gerrard, co-owner of Gerrard-Hoeschler, have begun during the past year.
One was securing a new home for the 5-year-old La Crosse Warming Center, which will open its doors at 413 S. Third St. to the homeless for another season tonight.
The other was acquiring a site to help launch the Franciscan Hospitality House in the Great River Vineyard Church at 114 N. Sixth St. as a daytime drop-in spot offering respite and resources to the homeless.
Staff and Gerrard own the facilities, which representatives of service agencies and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration staff. Francis Homes is a venture of the realty firm as a company in collaboration with the couple’s nonprofit, Shelter Development Inc., which Staff said initially will own the houses in the program.
Pope, FSPAs inspire name
Pope Francis and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration inspired the name of Francis Homes, Staff said.
The pope has preached and modeled the need to help house vulnerable people, and “the nuns have the moral high ground in this community,” Staff said.
The initial rent proposed for the four-bedroom house where the Bouchards are living on the edge of downtown La Crosse was $700 to $750, but the woman who owns it settled on $500 “because she wanted to help,” Staff said.
The family embraced the idea, with Tom saying, “He wanted to something for people in our situation, of being homeless — people not looking for a handout but wanting to improve their situation and establish a rental history.”
When Staff listed some repairs the house needs, “Tom said he could do them,” Staff said, so that became part of the deal.
During a tour of the home Friday, Tom pointed out some of the improvements on his to-do list: putting up new sheetrock on the ceiling and repairing the walls in the downstairs hallway that sustained water damage from an overflowing sink in the bathroom above, and building a fence to separate the pond on the side of the house from the backyard.
“I’m going to put the fence up so when Ben is playing in the backyard, he won’t fall in the pond,” Tom said with a laugh about Ben, who so enjoys romping in the space compared with restricted quarters he is accustomed to that it takes both parents and both siblings to keep track of the lad.
“I’ll do these things on the weekends, little things like peeling wallpaper that I’ll either pull down or glue back up,” he said.
“I’ll put work into the house and take care of it,” said Tom, an events support worker working in IT and helping set up the Lunda Center at Western Technical College. He said he picked up some handyman skills years ago during a stint at Home Depot.
“We’re all kind of learning” as Francis Homes gets off the ground, Tom said. “The sisters were real nice when they came to see us the other day and brought a bag of apples for the kids.”
FSPA Sister Karen Neuser, one of those who stopped by for the visit, said the project dovetails with the FSPA/Affiliate Homelessness Initiative.
“We are a committee committed to alleviating and eliminating homelessness in the city,” she said, adding that they share the goal with lot of organizations and individuals.
Francis Homes is “a kind of prototype of an effort to ID a particular family and seek a home, particularly through Rick,” Sister Neuser said. “Our role is to offer support in this conversation.”
Moved here in 2005 to be close to family
Tom and Marie, who have been together for 17 years and married for 16, moved to La Crosse from his native Buffalo, N.Y., in 2005 after her father died to be closer to her family.
“We stayed with family until we got a place. I was working at a restaurant and Marie looked for work, but I was not getting enough hours to pay for the rent, electricity and utilities,” he said.
After being evicted, the family was referred to the La Crosse Count Housing Authority, which “got us into a place, but it was not income-based,” again making payments difficult, he said.
They lived in another house for four or five years, but “the house was coming apart at the seams, and it had a mouse infestation,” Tom said. “It got so bad the health department came and said we had to get out that weekend, so we put our stuff in storage and lived with family.”
Searching for housing for two years, “any place we could afford was snapped up by people without evictions on their record,” Tom said.
Staying at The Salvation Army for about 1½ months this year was “tough, especially with both of us working,” he said. “The (older) kids like to go out and do their own thing.
“It’s tough — you feel like you’re treated like a kid, be in bed by a certain time. You have no personal time, but you do what you have to do.”
Close-knit family making house a home
These days, Marie plans to resume her education at Western in January, although she hasn’t settled on her track, and the close-knit family is unpacking belongings in the house they moved into two weeks ago to make it a home.
“We’re real close,” Tom said. “That’s the one thing that helped us get through the past two years. We’re all real close and try to help each other.”
Evidence of that is the friendly sibling rivalry between Eric and Zack as they play Yu-Gi-Oh on the living room floor and the brotherly love, with a tinge of teasing, as they help Ben set up in the sun-bathed front room he has claimed as his toy area.
Eric spends most Saturday evenings at River City Hobbies competing in Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments, frequently finishing third or fourth, with an occasional second.
The Central High School sophomore plans to try out for wrestling, a sport “I was OK at” when he participated as a youngster.
He also hopes to complete his high school education as a junior so he can take classes at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse as a senior to get a jump on a college degree.
Long term, Eric said, he is considering becoming a fiction author or maybe a doctor.
“That’s this week,” his dad said with a laugh. “He’s bounced around a few times. Once, he was going to be a paleontologist.”
Zack is still smarting about the fact that Logan Elementary School beat his undefeated football team at Lincoln Elementary School for the season trophy a couple of weeks back.
“I wasn’t happy about that,” he said. “We could have beat them.”
“You can’t win ’em all,” Tom said, as Eric chided his brother, “That sounds like salt. You want crackers with your salt?”
Laughing off the taunts, Zack paused when asked whether he had snagged any interceptions in his position as a cornerback before settling on “two or three,” adding more certainly: “two against Sparta and one against Longfellow.”
Marie expressed gratitude for Francis Homes, saying, “I like it. It got us into a house after taking a long time to find something.”
Effort to accelerate quest
Francis Homes isn’t resting on its laurels after placing its first family, instead ramping up its quest.
Gerrard-Hoeschler will lead fundraising and property management in the cause, Staff said.
“There are no rules. They will develop according to the needs,” he said, adding that some families could reach the point where they buy the houses.
“Each family living in a Francis Home will be assigned a case worker from a local organization such as YWCA to increase the likelihood of a successful transition to independence,” he said.
Noting the estimates that as many as 200 students in the La Crosse School District are homeless at any given time for a variety of reasons, Staff repeated the organization’s vow that “no child should be raised in a shelter.”
“It is not limited to La Crosse,” he said. “We will try every way to meet the needs. It may be beyond anybody’s goals, but we will help the neediest first.”
Nancy underscored the point, noting the support of Gerrard-Hoeschler co-owner, Jay Hoeschler, and the enthusiasm of the firm’s staff.
“Several property owners also are considering contributing real estate,” she said.
Her husband “has an amazing vision, and I’m not sure how he’ll pull it off, but he’s got a good track record.”
Asked about roadblocks they might encounter, “We haven’t been in it long enough to really see the challenges, but they won’t be insurmountable,” Nancy vowed.
“It really is a corporate commitment, and we will work with people in the community,” she said. “People need to help us.”
Chances are, the Bouchards will be in the helping crew.
Like other families they met during their stay at The Salvation Army, “We are hoping to get our own place,” Tom said.
‘We don’t want to be on assistance’
“At Western, I got an associate’s’ degree and two technical degrees in two years. That’s the whole point. We don’t want to be on Food Share and the health assistance.
“With my job at Western, we’re off BadgerCare, and we want to get off of Food Share,” he said. “We’re trying to do things the correct way and establish a rent history instead of just living off of these programs.
“We’re just very grateful to Rick and everybody else for giving us a second chance,” he said.
The Bouchards want to see other families get another shot, Tom said.
“After being in this position, we want to help other people who were in the same position we were,” he said.