Homeless people now have a daytime drop-in spot for rest, comfort and a variety of social services at the new Franciscan Hospitality House in downtown La Crosse.
The facility, housed within the Great River Vineyard Church at 114 6th St. N., was blessed Wednesday during an ecumenical ceremony at which Catholic Bishop William Callahan and Lutheran Bishop Jim Arends officiated jointly.
The center represents continuing efforts of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and other agencies to address the needs of homeless individuals and those at risk of becoming homeless.
“When you get a group of people sitting around in a circle wondering, ‘What does God want us to do,’ great things happen,” FSPA Sister Georgia Christensen said in welcoming about 100 people to the ceremony.
The facility is one of the results of that brainstorming, which also has included the evolution of the La Crosse Warming Center as an overnight wintertime shelter. Lutheran Social Services launched that program in 2010 and Catholic Charities took it over the following year; it moved last fall to an expanded facility at 413 S. Third St. that also houses many Catholic Charities programs.
The Hospitality House, which is open year-round from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, is intended as a daytime refuge for the homeless, organizers said.
“St. Francis interpreted hospitality as welcoming one another in a comforting manner with respect and reverence,” she said.
The new facility reflects that philosophy, offering basic services such as laundry and shower facilities, hair and foot care and a place to take a load off, as well as advanced assistance such as mental health support, legal and financial consultation, job training referrals and aid through other agencies.
The opening is timely, as Pope Francis has declared an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy starting Dec. 8, said Callahan, head of the 19-county Diocese of La Crosse.
Providing charity, hospitality and care exemplifies the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, Callahan said, adding, “This is the way we touch Jesus’ heart — it is a way we are imaging Jesus Christ.”
The Hospitality House encompasses more than serving the poor, he said.
“This is where Jesus is going to be met,” Callahan said. “The dream of the Franciscan sisters has become a reality, and the reality of the Gospel has come to life.”
Arends, head of the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, noted the charitable work of the synod’s 74 congregations in both Lutheran and Catholic ventures.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t’ have to have this space?” Arends said. “But we are in a world where it is necessary, and we have people who care.
“This is a ministry that is the shared ministry of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Hospitality House coordinator Tristine Bauman, who also is evening coordinator at the Warming Center, said word of the daytime opportunity has stirred homeless individuals.
“You mean we can shower?” Bauman quoted one man as saying.
His sentiments echoed those of a man who often stayed at the Warming Center whom Catholic Charities helped find a home, she said. That man also was surprised that an agency was so dedicated to connecting the needy with assistance.
The Hospitality House will strive to help those who go there to get their lives on track to escape homelessness, Bauman said.
Volunteer hairdressers from the Metropolitan Salon and Day Spa in La Crosse will provide haircuts, and volunteer registered nurses will administer foot care, she said.
The Hospitality House includes laundry facilities, and volunteer staffers will be able to arrange clothing for those who need it, she said.
Legal consultation will come from former La Crosse County Circuit Judge Roger LeGrand, who said, “I’m real excited about this. It’s a wonderful collaboration.”
LeGrand, who retired from the Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission in February, said, “I wanted to do something in retirement that is useful, and I’m happy to do this.”
The Hospitality House replaces a previous plan that Rick Staff and Catholic Charities had initiated to put such a facility in a different downtown building near the Warming Center.
“This is plan B,” said Staff, president and legal counsel of Gerrard-Hoeschler Realtors in La Crosse and Onalaska, who also had helped relocate and expand the Warming Center. “The church here always had looked for a daytime use during the week, so this is a perfect fit.”
Great River Vineyard Pastor Wade Wilson underscored that point, saying, “We had been looking for a way to use our facility for God’s kingdom” on weekdays.
“My heart also has been in wanting to be involved in a place like this,” he said.
“What is really neat is our relationship with the sisters,” he said. “It is amazing — they are great.”
“When you get a group of people sitting around in a circle wondering, ‘What does God want us to do,’ great things happen.” FSPA Sister Georgia Christensen