In the wake of the June closing of the Tent Ministry at West United Methodist Church, the La Crosse Human Rights Commission Wednesday brainstormed ways to answer its pastor’s call for greater community efforts to solve homelessness.
Commission member Will Van Roosenbeek asked the group to find practical ways to improve the lives of La Crosse’s homeless population while its members search for alternatives to living with no shelter, in part because of the loss of a safe place to pitch a tent at the King Street church.
The church’s Tent Ministry, which operated on-and-off for about a year, was forced to pull up its stakes after the its insurance carrier, Church Mutual, excluded the Tent Ministry from its coverage, leaving the church open to liability lawsuits. When it closed June 28, the Rev. Wesley White asked the community to start the “raising of a ruckus” about the increasing numbers of people without shelter.
“The church was doing this because there was a need,” Van Roosenbeek said, adding that the commission needs to keep homelessness on its radar as it addresses human rights issues.
For the short-term, Van Roosenbeek suggested practical fixes to improve the lives of those homeless people camping near the La Crosse River, maybe even providing garbage cans or portable toilets to keep the area as clean as possible.
CouleeCap housing and community services director Kim Cable said the La Crosse Homeless Coalition is researching the possibility of turning the Catholic Charities’s La Crosse Warming Center into a year-round venture, but it had no immediate resolution for the people displaced by the closure.
“We didn’t actually have anything for those folks,” Cable said. “I know some of them moved down by the river.”
The major obstacle facing the coalition is that “the need so much outweighs the services we have available,” she said. “We are trying to get people identified and at least get them on a housing list so when we do have openings we can try to bring people who are sleeping outdoors.”
In the meantime, the group is working on getting as many people as possible off the streets and into local shelters.
“There is room for men primarily at the Salvation Army right now,” Cable said. “Where we have the difficulty locally is actually providing shelter for women and children. We know of some women on the streets now camping in other locations that are potentially more vulnerable than others.”
Cable said they are upping their outreach to try and assist those women, citing the work done by the La Crosse Homeless Coalition and Gundersen Health System’s consultant Erin Healy, who has brought expertise to city.
City planner Jason Gilman cited Healy’s recommendations to have additional housing without the structured, strict rules to curb homelessness, saying it was something the city should explore in the long-term.
“Erin mentioned that we need to have some housing without rules because some homeless people that may be suffering from addictions and things like that aren’t going to subscribe to an institutionalized setting,” Gilman said.
Gilman said the city can incorporate some of Healy’s other recommendations into its current practices, particularly inclusionary housing policies for new developments.
Council member Jai Johnson, who also sits on the commission, pointed out that there may be additional low-income housing within the city in the next few years, citing a possible development neighboring the Kane Street Community Garden.
“The city is in early stages of planning and development that will provide some housing,” Johnson said. “It’s not all homeless transitional housing, but a portion of it may be.”
The city is requesting proposals from developers familiar with the competitive low-income housing grant from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Association.