Brian Johnson, surrounded by more than a dozen bicycles in various states of repair — and disrepair — labored to put a front fender on one in what he said is his push to leave the encampment of homeless people on the north end of Riverside Park in La Crosse.
“I’m getting ready to move,” the 39-year-old Johnson said during an interview Thursday, spreading his arms at the dozens of bicycle tires and parts in his Tent City digs. “The end game is to be able to give a kid a bike.”
The end game for a coalition that includes the city of La Crosse and several agencies is to secure housing for Johnson and about 15 others spread throughout the wooded area along the Mississippi River and “end dangerous tent living in the area of Riverside North” by May 31, members say.
The initiative is an extension of last year’s efforts of the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness to end veteran homelessness before Christmas — an undertaking that included city of La Crosse staffers and was largely successful with the placement of 16 veterans, although Marine veteran Johnson eluded that wave.
“We want to ensure that every person who is homeless and living in tents has shelter available and future housing opportunities in La Crosse,” said Kim Cable, who chairs the collaborative and is housing and community services director at Couleecap.
“That’s why we are opening up beds and sending out outreach workers to start working with people now,” Cable said. “Our message is that we want anyone who is staying outside to have access to housing.”
Living at site off and on for nine years
Ryan, a 33-year-old neighbor of Johnson’s who asked that his last name not be used, said moving into an apartment sounds inviting.
“I’ve been living here off and on for nine years, during the summer,” Ryan said as he fashioned a professional-looking new ax handle from a limb.
“I can’t stand being outside during the winter,” when the La Crosse native said he spends nights in the La Crosse Warming Center that Catholic Charities runs.
Ryan said he has been looking for jobs, hoping especially to land one cooking, but the fact that he didn’t finish school and can’t read thwarts that effort.
“They prefer education,” he said.
Johnson, a native of Charleston, S.C., who has lived in La Crosse since 2012 and has worked a few jobs beyond his outdoor bike shop, said repairing the cycles “taps into my passion.” He attributes his knack for repairing bikes to watching a neighbor work on his bikes when Johnson was a boy — and then teaching him, insisting that he should be able to do it on his own.
Johnson seems more inclined to cooperate in this phase of the collaborative’s push to bring homelessness in the area to functional zero than he did last fall, saying that he is hoping to pull together enough money to obtain a storage unit for his projects and tools before May 31.
He has a lead on a job at an organic farm, he told Neighborhood Resource Officers Alex Burg and Joel Miller, who accompanied a reporter and photographer through the encampment Thursday.
“I believe in working hard and playing hard,” Johnson said. “I’m a guy — I like to get my hands dirty. I like to work from a tent. The only thing you lose is your luxuries.”
Police develop easy rapport
Burg and Miller have developed an easy rapport with Johnson, Ryan and other campers during regular visits through the area.
The mingling “gives us a better understanding of where they are,” Burg said.
Miller echoed that appraisal, adding, “It’s not that Alex and I are any different from anybody else. It’s just that we were in the right place at the right time.”
The residents welcome the officers, having become accustomed to the fact that they come by periodically to check on things.
“We try to be overall positive and not confrontational at all, to build a little more trust,” Miller said.
“When we first started coming, they were very stand-offish. But we’ve kinda broken down barriers,” Burg said.
“They’re down here to protect and serve. But if you do something wrong …” Johnson said of the men in blue, his sentence trailing off.
Burg noted the contrast in scenery, looking south from the across the La Crosse River to the Riverside International Friendship Gardens, compared with tourists’ vantage point seeing Tent City when they look north.
“They’re right across from the jewel of the city,” he said.
At mealtimes, the distinct aroma of wood fires wafts across the river and into the gardens.
“We should play golf sometime,” Johnson said to Burg.
“Repairing bicycles and golfing both require patience,” said Johnson, who claimed he shoots in the 90s and added with a degree of pride, “I do have a draw shot that is deadly on a dogleg.”
Stolen bike reports prove false
A few people who have spied Johnson’s array of bicycle parts and frames have called police to report stolen bikes and suggest that they might be at Johnson’s site, but Burg said they have found no such evidence, after checking serial numbers.
Johnson attributes his collection to a bit of dumpster diving, finding broken bikes abandoned along bike paths and collecting bicycles that college students discard before leaving for the summer.
On the other hand, Johnson said, three of his bikes have been stolen, an unfortunate circumstance because his only mode of transportation to jobs is a bike.
The police officers encouraged Johnson, Ryan and a woman named Shannon, who also asked that her last name not be used, to attend a picnic celebration planned for May 31 to celebration the evacuation from Tent City.
The Salvation Army and Catholic Charities are involved with Couleecap and the collaborative in the collaborative’s next effort to end chronic homelessness, which includes halting the Riverside North camping.
The Salvation Army, which averages about 50 open beds on any given night, will open additional spaces if the main shelter becomes full, said Nick Ragner, the corps’ public relations coordinator.
“We believe that everyone deserves a safe place to sleep,” Ragner said.
The Franciscan Hospitality House will offer services to any displaced individuals.
“We will continue to have staff available at the Franciscan Hospitality House and in our Catholic Charities downtown office to assist those who are homeless and need help with finding housing options,” said Mary Jacobson, assistant executive director of Catholic Charities.
Mayor Tim Kabat said the decision to vacate the area is based on practical considerations, in addition to the housing efforts.
“We made this decision after serious consideration of the health and safety hazards posed by a large number of people living in an area not intended for human habitation,” Kabat said. “There are concerns with human waste disposal and pathogens and illegal drug use. There is a high risk for this dangerous flash flooding during heavy rains — notwithstanding that this area will soon become an active construction site.”
The La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness will host a community forum in June to address housing solutions and what it will take to achieve the goal of ending homelessness.
More information on the collaborative can be found on its website.