People who insist, as some do, that homeless people choose the nomadic lifestyle might consider Jessica Luhman’s plight.
Having plunged from a joint annual income of $130,000 between her and her boyfriend to zilch after he committed suicide, the 39-year-old La Crosse native said she is unable to get a job because of a torn rotator cuff that will require a third operation, owes $14,000 in college loans that the state of Minnesota demands immediately and is living in the semi-clandestine homeless tent encampment along the Mississippi River north of Riverside Park.
“Those people should search their family roots, where they came from and where they are, and their education,” said Luhman, a mother of two girls and two boys who was forced to give one son up for adoption and recently became a grandmother for the first time.
“If it delivers you from being on the street, your family has made it,” she said during an interview Wednesday at the Franciscan Hospitality House in downtown La Crosse.
The Hospitality House, a joint venture of the La Crosse Diocese’s Catholic Charities and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, will mark its first anniversary Friday as a daytime respite for homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless.
A celebration of that milestone will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. today, including lunch, at the facility within the Great River Vineyard Church at 114 N. Sixth St.
“It’s a good place to take a shower, do laundry, socialize with friends and get some food,” said Anthony Resur, a 25-year-old Arizona native who has lived in La Crosse since 2007 and also is a frequent visitor to the Hospitality House.
“It gives a place for homeless to stay during the day,” said Resur, who acknowledges that part of the reason for his homelessness is because he partied when younger but also laments poor choices of a roommate that resulted in eviction.
“Some days, you don’t want to go to the library to get cool or just sit in the park all day,” he said.
Resur also has some blunt advice for anyone who suggests that homelessness offers a carefree lifestyle, saying, “Maybe they should try to put everything in a bag, take only their clothes and stay on the street.”
Resur, who has had a job as a dishwasher at The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern in La Crosse since September, had camped out nightly in the courtyard of Wesley United Methodist Church until the congregation was forced to end its Tent Ministry on Tuesday. Now, he also lives at the homeless camp of 20 to 30 people near downtown.
He expressed appreciation for his job at The Waterfront, where he makes about $9 an hour, a sum he described as “pretty decent.”
“They’ve done a lot for me, giving me a raise in the first month, and they waived my probation period,” he said.
Neither Resur, who is engaged to a shy young woman who lives with her grandmother, nor Luhman, who attended Logan and Central high schools and has spent most of her life in La Crosse, wants to set up permanent stakes in the floodplain — especially when winter rolls around. Then, you might find them staying overnight at the La Crosse Warming Center Catholic Charities runs or couch surfing with family and friends.
Both are optimistic about a developing initiative with a target of ending homelessness among the 200 to 300 estimated to be without housing in La Crosse, with some figures pegging the number far higher. That coalition is being organized among representatives of city and county departments, nonprofit groups, businesses, Realtors, landlords and other stakeholders to set firm goals and deadlines.
Spearheading the effort, with advice from national housing consultant Erin Healy of Brooklyn, N.Y., are Gundersen Health System's new Population Health and Strategy Department and the FSPAs.
Committee members are expected to be named soon to set deadlines and goals, with initial targets being to help homeless people get off the streets and into affordable housing as soon as possible.
“I say we should go for it. The community should get together,” Resur said. “It’s not easy to be homeless. It’s not a choice. … It would help people, like homeless people who are trying to work and get back on their feet.”
People living in homelessness are in a downward spiral in which lack of a permanent address, paperwork snarls and spotty rental and ownership records thwart efforts to land jobs and consume all of their energy, forcing them to ignore other basic needs such as health care, mental health issues and nutrition, Resur, Luhman and Becker said.
Being able to obtain affordable housing “would be an advantage to me and my family,” said Luhman, who said she would like to return to school but cannot until her loans are paid.
After attending Western Technical College in La Crosse for a time, she transferred to Viterbo University with a goal of pursuing a medical career, she said.
“My grades dropped after I gave my child up for adoption from 3.7 to 2.1,” Luhman said.
She transferred to Winona State University, which stipulated that she must raise her grades. Majoring in pre-med, Spanish and sociology, she was not able to continue because of increasing debt.
That presents another spiral: not being able to pay down the college debt without a job and not being able to go back to school without paying the debt, thus facing roadblocks to escaping homelessness and the continued stress of struggling to survive. Luhman said churches are becoming increasingly aware of the homelessness problem and there are some resources to ease the struggle.
Recent severe storms have exacerbated living conditions along the river.
When it rains, Luhman said, “I try to find a family member where I can stay or a place with an awning so I don’t get too wet — or tough it out in a tent.”
Living on workman’s comp because of her work-related injury, Luhman said she has tried to obtain temporary jobs to no avail.
The Hospitality House, which served nearly 400 separate clients between its opening day of July 1 and May 31, offers not only snacks from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. daily but also shower and laundry facilities, haircuts, foot care and connections to resources.
The breakdown of the clientele has been surprising, compared with statistics before the center opened, said Karen Becker, Catholic Charities’ marketing director.
In 2010, statistics indicated that the numbers included four men for every woman. At the Franciscan Hospitality House, the ratio has been closer to 2-1, she said.
“It was way different than we expected,” she said.
Tristine Bauman, coordinator of the Hospitality House, said she is not surprised at the numbers using the facility, averaging 26 people a day and hitting a high of 46.
“I’m very happy — elated — to see those numbers coming through our door, but it also makes me sad,” Bauman said. “But it’s a reality. … I like it because it tells people we are here, and people want to connect.
“It’s a good way to make sure everybody’s OK, so we can keep the safety net of keeping them safe,” she said.
After being raised in a very private family, Luhman said, “My grandfather would be spinning in his grave right now because I’m homeless and speaking publicly about it.”