The closing of Tent City — the former homeless encampment near the mouth of the La Crosse River in La Crosse — sadly does not mean the end of homelessness in our region.
But it does represent a turning point in the fight against homelessness — and a good time to look back at the progress achieved by a lot of people and organizations in our community.
A city of La Crosse study in 2013 showed that as many as 1,300 homeless people were living in our area. Estimates by officials of the La Crosse School District suggest there are up to 200 homeless students at a given moment.
Those aren’t numbers to be proud of.
Dozens of people representing a variety of charitable, civic and government agencies pulled together to tackle the problem.
A national expert on homelessness came to town last year to help identify solutions. Goals were set, tasks assigned. The group set out to prevent homelessness, instead of merely responding only to crisis situations.
One of the first missions was to house homeless veterans by Christmas. And the group succeeded in placing 16 veterans in housing.
It was an impressive collaboration that continues.
The recent closing of Tent City brought more attention to the problem — and more people were placed as a result.
Now the La Crosse Community Foundation has given the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness a two-year grant worth $81,562 — with an option for renewal — to hire a project manager to coordinate all the efforts in our community to end homelessness and place people in housing.
Petra Roter, the former University of Wisconsin-La Crosse administrator who recently returned to the community as executive director of the foundation, said she was impressed by the willingness of so many to come together to address social needs.
“I call it an example of collective impact,” she said. “We saw it as a successful and important effort.”
Caroline Gregerson, who leads community development for the city’s Planning and Development Department, points out that homelessness affects our community in many ways — from criminal justice to health care and social-service providers.
Let’s put that another way: The homeless have some of the same problems exhibited by people who have roofs over their heads — problems such as crime, mental illness, addiction.
Clearly, being homeless and having few resources makes those problems even more challenging.
But as we’ve heard from a few people in our community, there’s still the perception that homelessness is nothing more than a choice, a never-ending, carefree campout.
Our recent coverage of the fight against homelessness received an email response that used such words describing the homeless as sleazebags, vagrants, hustlers — people who have chosen to live off of the generosity of others.
We’ve never interviewed homeless people when it’s 20 below who have suggested that life is good and they choose to be cold and hungry.
Without a doubt, there are many homeless who have problems — some of their own making. But these are people — and they live in our community. Some might be difficult to help and hard to love, but that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to try.
Let those angry few who believe homelessness is deserved continue to wallow in anger.
Thank goodness there are many more who are willing to come together and help.