The city of La Crosse and a local agency have begun moving people experiencing homelessness into the Econo Lodge on the North Side to use as a temporary winter shelter.
It’s a new move by the city, which has been allowing those without housing to take shelter in Houska Park for the past several months. But last week, the La Crosse Common Council approved the use of $700,000 in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to help rent a temporary space for people to sleep for the winter.
The city has provided the funds to a new local agency that will manage and oversee round-the-clock operations at the hotel, which has been completely rented out through March 2022, allowing for about 65 rooms to be used for shelter.
La Crosse Parks, Recreation & Forestry Department director Jay Odegaard, who has helped spearhead the city’s response to the growing homelessness crisis, said that the first group of people was moved into the hotel on Monday night.
About 109 people were checked in that night, a vast majority of those coming directly from Houska Park, Odegaard said, where resources have now been diverted from.
“It was a resounding desire across the board to get out of the park,” Odegaard said of those who have been calling Houska Park home as winter weather sets in. At different times officials counted about 130 people residing in the park, or between 70 and 100 tents, he said.
“I think the idea that they were able to go to a place where they knew they would be able to stay and had a little bit of security there, we didn’t have any issues,” Odegaard said.
Houska Park was identified as a “safe place” for the unsheltered population to reside in June by city officials, where they would not be ticketed and would be allowed to set up tents and grills, and agencies were able to create a more centralized space for services.
While the “messaging” around Houska Park has not changed, Odegaard said, everyone was asked to leave the park on Monday while officials winterized it like they do each year, shutting off the water and flushing the pipes. Agencies will no longer divert their supports to the park during the winter.
“All the things that made it more welcoming before are kind-of gone,” he said.
Using the Econo Lodge — which was used for a similar purpose last winter — is only a short-term fix, Odegaard said, and officials will look for a more long-term solution in the meantime, possibly a more permanent, city-owned shelter, though the use of the park has proven to be an improvement from past efforts.
But both the park and the hotel are not “sustainable,” Odegaard said.
“It is obviously the number one priority for Mayor [Mitch] Reynolds and the city council to continue moving in the direction of finding more of that long-term location to address these issues,” Odegaard said. “It’s not our intent to use Houska” again, he said, also saying that the city did not want to “be renting hotels every year.”
Coming up with a more sustainable solution will take a regional effort, Odegaard emphasized, a sentiment of many officials about the issue of homelessness, but that the unprecedented COVID relief funds could prove to be a guiding light to solutions.
“Without the ARPA funding I would say this would be a pretty tough battle just to get the hotel funding,” Odegaard said. “It allows us to be looking at some more significant improvements when it comes to tackling this situation.”
Karuna Housing, Inc., a new local agency focused on homelessness, will provide 24/7 management for those staying at a hotel, and it will be a collaborative effort from other outside agencies and partners to provide wrap-around services.
Those using the shelter will need to register with the hotel and each of them goes through an orientation to learn the rules of the shelter, such as no active drug-use, and then are assigned a room.
After that most guests won’t need to be evaluated on a daily basis, but will work with case managers to evaluate needs throughout their stay.
Three meals a day are offered for those staying at the shelter, a medical team will be on-site, and the La Crosse County Health Department will offer COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. The groups will work towards identifying support for those staying at the hotel, including providing wrap-around services.
During their stay the agencies will also work with the guests to help identify who might be “housing ready” and find housing solutions for after the shelter closes.
“We’re really trying to provide a good safe place for them and to really meet their needs,” said Diane McGinnis, La Crosse’s Community Development director.
A hotline at 608-360-6430 has been set up for those seeking shelter for themselves or others at the Econo Lodge or to seek other help with issues related to homelessness.
From Tribune files: Life in the La Crosse area in the 1950s
Olivia Herken is the local government reporter at the La Crosse Tribune and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism. She can be found on Twitter @oherken, and reached at 608-791-8217.