Homeless people in La Crosse who cannot stay at local shelters will have a safe, warm place to turn to this winter.
A group of nonprofits, congregations and community members plan to open an overnight warming center Nov. 1 on South 10th Street that will be staffed and funded by volunteers.
Organizers say the Warming Center Project seeks to catch those who have fallen through the cracks - single men, mentally ill adults, people on drugs or alcohol, sex offenders and others not eligible to stay at The Salvation Army or New Horizons Shelter and Women's Center.
The center initially will have space for only 15, so it will only take adults who can't use those other sites.
It will stay open until April 1 and offer activities and a place to rest, but no beds. Coffee and a light meal of soup and bread will be provided.
It's not a homeless shelter, organizers are quick to point out, and not designed to compete with other agencies.
"It's a really specific population that we are targeting," said Kevin Solarte, a community services professional for Lutheran Social Services. "These are the people who are under the bridges, in the parks. We just want people to be safe and not freezing in the winter."
The Warming Center Project is a collaboration of Lutheran Social Services, the La Crosse County Homeless Coalition and the congregation-based AMOS coalition, and grew out of discussions in April.
"This has been remarkable, to see the community come around and pull together," said the Rev. Curtis Miller, pastor of Hope United Church in La Crosse and AMOS organizer.
The project took a big step when Partners in Empowerment, a drop-in center for those with mental health issues and addictions, offered space in the building it rents at 1201 S. 10th St.
"It's going to be a neat partnership," board member Therese Roellich-Bernadot said. "I'm really good at staying up all night. I'm looking forward to be able to volunteer."
The warming center will open when PIE closes - 10 p.m. weekdays and midnight weekends. Two shifts of two volunteers will run the center until 7 a.m., accepting walk-ins and referrals from police and The Salvation Army.
"This town doesn't really have a lot of options if you show up in the middle of winter drunk and need a place to stay," said Maj. Curtiss Hartley of The Salvation Army, which has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, plus other restrictions to protect children at the shelter. "They are looking at meeting that need."
The Warming Center Project is modeled after similar centers recently opened elsewhere in the state, including Eau Claire and Kenosha.