Consultant Erin Healy sympathizes with agencies that serve the homeless, comparing the regulatory hurdles they must clear with a game of whack-a-mole: When they satisfy one rule, another pops up to snag the process.
Homeless individuals often feel the same way, sometimes being transferred from agency to agency to agency, encountering still more hurdles along the way.
Healy, a private New York consultant who was a leader in the national 100,000 Homes Project that helped secure housing for 105,850 people from 2010 to 2014, is working with Coulee Region agencies this week to devise a strategy to whack the moles and clear the hurdles.
Rod and Doug, two formerly homeless men who were spending the day in their old haunts in a semi-clandestine homeless camp Wednesday, wish her well.
Healy has a reputation as a get-it-done taskmaster who helps communities set, and surpass, lofty goals to end homeless, and she is optimistic about the potential for success here.
Healy, who toured the encampment with three Catholic Charities representatives to talk with a few folks there, and one of the formerly homeless men agree on one thing: Plenty of regional agencies are providing good services, although sometimes they are working on parallel paths and/or become mired in governmental or institutional rules.
“We are fortunate in this city to have a lot of people who really care,” said Rod, a 52-year-old Army Ranger veteran who spent 2½ years, off and on at the camp and recently obtained an apartment with a Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Grant.
“I definitely have a sense of the mood here to do something more,” Healy said during a meeting with Salvation Army leaders and staffers earlier Wednesday. “I feel people are ready to try something new.”
Sometimes there is too much red tape, said Rod, who served in Panama, suffered leg injuries during two ill-fated jumps and is scheduled for hip replacement surgery at Gundersen Health System today.
Doug echoed the thought, saying, “On the surface, the services are great. They all offer different services. But all are pretty much run-around, sending you in a circle.
Rod and Doug declined to have their pictures taken and asked that their last names not be published.
Doug, 55, who lived in the camp along the Mississippi River north of Riverside Park for most of 4½ years, works jobs off and on. He recently moved in with a relative and pays rent.
When winter temperatures plummeted to around 30 degrees below zero, Doug would shed his Jeremiah Johnson lifestyle and go to the La Crosse Warming Center for respite.
That is where he met Tristine Bauman, the former warming center director who now is in charge of the Franciscan Hospitality House, a daytime shelter under the auspices of Catholic Charities and the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
Bauman routinely drops by the homeless camps around town to check on people she has served and tell new residents about local resources.
During the tour Wednesday, Bauman, Doug and Rod chatted about how they are doing. She promised to connect Doug with someone about getting new wheels for the bent ones on his bike, which resulted in a tumble that broke his left foot 10 days ago.
When winter conditions are more balmy — 20 below zero and above — Doug used a propane heater to stay warm, he said, adding, “I always had enough money to buy propane, but never enough to get a rent deposit.”
He told of obtaining rent vouchers at one point but said they were so restrictive that he could not locate a landlord who would buy into the regulations.
“At that time, it would have been a life-changing event for me, and I never would have been homeless,” he said.
Rod, whose apartment is in Tomah near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said he spent two summers at the camp but opted for nights in the warming center during the winter, observing with a smile, “I don’t do cold.”
Healy, who is compiling information during daily back-to-back meetings with social service, religious and governmental agencies, jotted notes that The Salvation Army and the warming center serve different homeless populations.
The corps shelter, which hosts families and single men and women, will not admit people who have been drinking, while the warming center serves only adults and will accept those who have had a few, as long as they aren’t disruptive.
Tension sometimes exists for individuals trying to decide which shelter to go to, as well as staffers at each trying to balance supply and demand.
Both agencies, though, already are working toward Healy’s goal to get homeless people into permanent housing with support services as quickly as possible and her quest to help develop options to accomplish that in La Crosse.
But governmental regulations often impede progress, they noted, prompting Healy’s whack-a-mole observation.
Healy will make a public presentation about her work from 9 to 11 a.m. today in the Assisi Room of St. Rose Convent at 912 Market St. Sponsoring her visits and research, with a working title of “A La Crosse Collaboration to END Homelessness,” is Gundersen Health System’s new Population Health and Strategy Department.
Healy spurns iffy targets to end homelessness, telling women’s advocates during a meeting with representatives of the YWCA and New Horizons Shelter and Outreach Centers in La Crosse Wednesday afternoon.
“I like a clear goal. Reducing homelessness to us is not a goal. If there are 200 homeless, set a goal that is fair and measurable. If you want to lose weight, you don’t set a goal to lose 10 pounds in two years,” she said.
“If you meet housing needs, people get healthier and you see a drop in ER and police calls, and you save money with supportive services instead of waiting for a crisis,” Healy said.
As for Doug and Rod, they were visiting their old digs in part to tidy it up a bit. Both remarked that the encampment is in good shape now, as opposed to periods of disarray last summer.
“We also like to check on the new people to share our knowledge,” Doug said. “We’ve been through this and know how to help.”
Both say they had good-paying jobs before they lost them for one reason or another. Both have physical and mental health issues.
Rod’s leg injuries make it impossible for him to stand for any length of time, and Doug acknowledged that he has a spotty work history.
“I went to WTC (Western Technical College) and had a 3.4 grade average,” he said, “so I’ve got some education.”
The population of the encampment is changing, he said.
“They’re getting a lot younger,” he said. There used to be a lot of old people who have gotten housing. The trend is changing.”
The encampment of 20 to 30 tents was mostly deserted Wednesday afternoon, with many of the residents working, they said.
“I know some people who have full-time jobs but live in storage units until they get back on their feet,” Rod said.
The campers are peaceful, as are passersby who see them, Doug said.
“Everybody is really respectful,” he said. “Ninety percent understand the situations people are in down here.
“There have been people who didn’t get along with others,” as might occur anywhere, Doug said. “They were kindly asked to leave. You’ve got to have community. You live with each other and respect each other.”