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Finding Home: ‘It’s never simple’: Understanding the complexities of homelessness

From the FINDING HOME: A series exploring homelessness in La Crosse series
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Finding Home

A broken down car. A medical emergency. A battle with alcohol and drug use.

Mental health challenges. Domestic violence. An affordable housing crisis.

Trauma. Generational trends. A lack of support networks.

These issues facing society can impact people in some way or another throughout life, often when least expected. They also are some of the factors that can lead to and perpetuate homelessness, comprising a complex web of circumstances and scenarios at play.

Sandy Brekke


This holds especially true for the people experiencing homelessness in La Crosse, many of which are currently living in Houska Park.

One woman there is unable to work due to injury, but can’t receive medical treatment while unhoused. A man became homeless after he lost a job that provided housing, while another is struggling to find housing with a prior eviction on her record.

While income stagnation, a lack of low-income housing and mental illness and substance use disorders can contribute to homelessness, there are other important factors to consider, said Sandy Brekke, who helps provide medical support for some of La Crosse’s homeless.

Brekke is a senior consultant in the Office of Population Health at Gundersen Health System and a volunteer for the St. Clare Health Mission on the Street Medicine Team. Brekke was formerly director of the St. Clare Health Mission.

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“It’s never simple,” Sandy said. “I don’t have the history and haven’t walked the path of a lot of the people that I work with who are experiencing homelessness. It’s super complex.”

This story is part of the weekly Finding Home series, which explores the growing issue of homelessness in La Crosse and tells the stories of the community members who are experiencing it.

Finding the right resources

While support resources and programs exist, they are not a necessarily a one size fits all solution for people facing homelessness, said Kim Cable, housing and community services director for CouleeCap. When these general resources don’t work for an individual, it can contribute to the repetitive cycle of homelessness continuing.

For example, there are a lack of local recovery and detox centers around La Crosse for those struggling with substance abuse, Kim said. Traveling for treatment is a difficult barrier to overcome and can perpetuate homelessness, while an absence of mental health services also contributes.

Housing placement programs may also not be suited to every individual who is experiencing homelessness, Sandy said. They often come with specific condition and regulations, and previous experiences can make it difficult to abide by these rules.

Kim said these types of resources would be more effective if they could be tailored to individuals.

Kim Cable

“We need to be having those kinds of conversations with folks and have them involved in their plan for housing,” Kim said. “I don’t really think coming in and saying ‘Here, this is what we’re going to do for you’ works. It isn’t individualized and it doesn’t put people in a position of empowerment.”

Generational trends

Generational trends and habits are becoming increasingly more important to take it to account when considering the factors that contribute to homelessness. Sandy said she is encountering more and more people who have close family members or friends who are also experiencing homelessness.

Being unhoused may become part someone’s upbringing and have a sense of normalcy. When this pattern emerges, it can make it more difficult to find housing and break a repetitive cycle, Sandy said.

WATCH NOW: Finding home: A look inside the park housing La Crosse's homeless

In places like Houska Park, where there is a sense of community among the people living there, leaving that familiar environment can be a challenge.

When someone does secure housing, social anxiety and past traumas can make make it hard to adjust to a new living situation, and even contribute to and individual becoming unhoused again in the future, in some cases.

“What we don’t have here in this community, is a place where people who have created supports for each other can go and live together,” Sandy said.

Being socially isolated away from most of the general population can also be a barrier for people experiencing homelessness, Sandy said.

“When somebody is homeless, they know exactly what people think of them,” Sandy said. “They tend to socially isolate away from the general public because they know they are absolutely being judged. If you are always being thought of as less than, it changes you.”

The impact of trauma

Experiencing traumas may put someone at a higher risk of being homeless at some point in their life, Sandy said. This trauma can occur in a person’s youth from a variety of experiences.

Family violence and neglect, having a parent with a mental illness or substance use disorder, or having a family member be incarcerated are some examples of possible traumas, but it can take many shapes and forms, Sandy said.

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This prolonged exposure to stress can impact development and create maladaptive coping techniques that persist into adulthood. Typical responses to stress, like a fight or flight response, can become disrupted and people may “freeze” instead.

Sandy says she sees this “freeze” response in some individuals experiencing homelessness who are living in Houska Park. This response to stress can perpetuate the cycle of homelessness, and make it difficult to receive support or take steps to secure housing.

“Sometimes they’re at the point where they’ve had trauma after trauma after trauma and you just see them having lost all hope,” Sandy said.

The experience of being homeless itself can also result in traumas, Sandy said. The impact of the elements, poor nutrition and lack of sleep have damaging health effects that can perpetuate homelessness.

While support services can help short-term, homelessness is often about survival, Sandy said.

“There’s one thing to be living in poverty and then there’s poverty of the soul and that’s what we have to worry with homelessness,” Sandy said.

Struggling to survive

A homeless man rests Wednesday at the encampment at Houska Park. Over 200 people inhabit the encampment.

As a health provider, Sandy said it important to take these possible traumas into account when working with people experiencing homelessness. Although it can be difficult to understand other’s thought processes and decision making mechanisms, Sandy said she aims to meet people where they are at.

“For me, I try to understand what happened that’s triggering this behavior and how do I need to know where they are in order to understand what’s happening,” Sandy said. “A lot of people’s behaviors are driven by experiences.”

Despite the complex experiences and circumstances that factor into homelessness, Sandy and Kim both agree that a community effort is needed to help those facing homelessness in La Crosse.

“There’s this one quote that always sticks with me,” Sandy said. “Society is only as good as the lowest among us.”


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Intern - Reporter

Abbey Machtig is a reporter intern at the La Crosse Tribune and a current student at the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She can be reached at 920-645-7607 and found on Twitter at @AbbeyMachtig

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