Homeless Coalition does overnight headcount, connects unsheltered people with resources
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The number of homeless or unsheltered people sleeping outside in the La Crosse area increased from last year’s tally, but the numbers who sought to connect with resources Thursday declined, according to statistics compiled through the night and day.

Although final statistics won’t be available for about two weeks, Kim Cable of Couleecap Inc. estimated that about 40 were counted sleeping without shelter during a biannual Point in Time headcount that is intended to provide a glimpse into the homeless situation in La Crosse County. That compares with 35 last July, which was an increase from 23 the previous year.

It doesn’t provide a full count of homeless individuals in La Crosse County, estimated as high as 1,300 during the course of a year.

“Even 20 people outdoors is significantly more than last year, and it indicates we are not getting a handle on it,” said Cable, housing and community services director at Couleecap who was in charge of the La Crosse Homeless Coalition count and Project Homeless Connect from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the La Crosse Center.

The number served at Homeless Connect dropped about 100 from the usual amount of 225 to 250 who go to the center for lunch, haircuts, foot care, vision screenings and to learn about resources, she said.

Cable wasn’t able to pinpoint a reason for the smaller turnout, other than noting it was a cool day and homeless individuals were not trying to escape heat.

Point in Time counts also are done in January, which are not directly comparable to July but still are cause for concern, she said.

“When we have people sleeping outside in January — some without tents — that is a community concern,” she said.

Five teams fanned out in La Crosse at 3:30 a.m. Thursday to compile the statistics, combing through parks and bushes, parking lots and ramps, and along streets and alleys.

The team covering the central/downtown vicinity found 10, said Tristine Bauman, coordinator of the Franciscan Hospitality House and leader of the group.

Bauman said she knew most of them through her work at the Hospitality House and previously at the La Crosse Warming Center.

One she didn’t know was a woman sleeping in the transit center, whom she didn’t identity because teams were instructed not to awaken those sleeping.

If people woke up, the teams recorded basic information in a quest to hook the people up to resources and the possibility of housing through Couleecap or at least temporary resources.

Anna Lawyer, a Couleecap case manager who was on a team covering part of the North Side, said, “It seems like whenever we run across someone, they will talk and answer our questions. I can imagine living on the streets — just surviving every day, the stress of that.”

Homeless individuals living on the street also are vulnerable to potential assaults and thefts, surveyors said.

Lawyer’s team, which found one unsheltered man in a sleeping bag on a metal bench behind the Black River Beach Community Center and another possible homeless person sleeping in a van in Copeland Park, also canvassed near Bridgeview Plaza and Hickey Park on the far North Side and Veterans Freedom Park.

During the La Crosse Center connection event, about 10 people sought vision screenings, said Nancy Wetzel, an optometrist at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare.

Most had normal vision and adequate eye pressure, although she referred one client for an eye exam, she said. A diabetic also was steered toward a regular eye exam, she said.

Meanwhile, 15 stopped in for foot care in a room staffed by employees of the La Crosse County Health Department.

Many needed toenails clipped and calluses filed, with other common afflictions being blisters and bug bites, said Sue Bennett, a county public health nurse.

Also available at the La Crosse Center was Oliver, a 2-year-old black goldendoodle who was popular with nearly everyone, said Casey Tobin, a volunteer pet therapist at the Coulee Region Humane Society whose day job is an associate psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“Dogs really help de-stress. I know they make me calm. Of course, they have to be good dogs,” Tobin said as Oliver cooled his heels at her feet.

The final Point in Time count, which will include not only La Crosse but also Crawford, Monroe and Vernon counties, is due to federal officials by Aug. 15, Cable said. It will include the unsheltered nose count as well as the numbers living in shelters, she said.

“We would love to do a street count and not find anybody,” Cable said, but that hasn’t been in the cards in recent years.

That could change under an initiative that involves Couleecap, the Homeless Coalition and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. In that effort, New York consultant Erin Healy is helping advocates determine a strategy to end homelessness.

That quest began with a week of brainstorming with local officials and agencies in June, has been percolating among the advocates since then and is close to ramping up.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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