La Crosse Seeks To Make Homeless Population A 'tOp Priority'

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — In what officials called a “historic” meeting between city of La Crosse and La Crosse County leaders, the two groups outlined their goal to purchase a downtown building as a long-term action against homelessness.

Using federal COVID relief, the groups hope to purchase the current La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce headquarters. The site would house staff and centralized services and eventually be home to newly constructed transition housing.

The building costs just under $2.2 million, officials said, and the city and county plan to split the cost using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to pay for the building and future construction.

The city and county Executive Committees discussed the proposal for some time before going into closed session to talk details about the possible purchase.

“These are longstanding and ever increasing issues and problems within our community that we can potentially address beginning here today,” said La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds, who presented the idea with associate county administrator Jane Klekamp.

“This is a centralized location, across the street from City Hall, making very clear to the community that this is a top priority for us and will continue to be for years to come,” Reynolds said.

The groups voted unanimously to move forward with the plan but nothing official can begin quite yet, including making an offer on the building. Overall, officials were in favor of the move, seen as a more long-term piece to a multifaceted solution, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

In recent years, the issue of homelessness has only worsened in the region, leaders said.

There were 160 adults on a “prioritization list” as of Oct. 31, and the same amount of people utilizing the three different shelters around the city. In addition, 56 families in the School District of La Crosse are experiencing homelessness, including 80 students, something Reynolds called “profound.”

Council member and county supervisor Andrea Richmond said she was “very passionate” about the issue. In her district, the city has recently rented out a hotel to serve as a temporary winter shelter.

“The day-to-day life of the folks that are there, they need something more. It is so critical that we move forward with this,” Richmond said. “If we can build this new neighborhood for these folks, I think we’ll improve their life going forward.”

The existing building on the downtown lot would be used for staff only, and not for housing, officials said. Instead, the groups would construct efficiency apartments where the parking lot currently stands, which would serve as “bridge” housing.

This type of housing works as a gateway or transition between shelter stays and permanent housing, something the region currently lacks.

“I think the beauty of this project is that it offers us some of the transitional type of services that we currently do not have available,” said supervisor Kim Cable, who also works with Couleecap Inc. “We don’t have any place between shelter and permanent housing right now, so it locks people into the shelter system for much longer.”

It would not be the intention for these to be apartments that are for rent for long periods of times, but an in-between living space. If for any reason they outlived their purpose as bridge housing, officials said they could then serve as additional affordable housing in the city. But no official conversations have yet been had about that possibility.

“I think this project that we’re proposing here today would have a very definite impact in our community, and do we need other types of housing in order to continue our battle against homelessness? Absolutely. But we have to start somewhere,” said Cable.

“And I think this is a unique opportunity that we should take advantage of and start ourselves down a path on getting a hold on homelessness,” she said.

Despite overwhelming support, some had concerns about the overall strategy and many questions remain.

“I’ll need more than today to think about this,” said council member Chris Kahlow. She applauded the project, but was concerned that the solutions to housing disproportionately fall on the downtown neighborhoods, and hoped for more regional support and permanent housing solutions.

The Chamber has used its downtown building as its headquarters since about 2014, and before that it was used by Associated Bank. The building is just under 20,000 square feet, officials said, and the overall lot is about 1.6 acres in size.

There are many steps ahead before this project could become a reality.

If approved and purchased, officials said it’s unlikely that the new housing could be constructed by April — when the lease on the temporary shelter is up — and an interim solution will be needed.

“We’re going to be hopefully finding methods or ways to house people temporarily on that site. We don’t know what that looks like yet,” Reynolds said. A small village of module homes or another indoor structure could work as a placeholder until the more permanent structure was built.

As the project is still in early stages, many of the nitty gritty details are not yet known. How the cost would exactly be split between municipalities, if taxpayer dollars are needed and if surrounding communities could be part of the process are all yet to be determined.

What was known, though, was that the county would own and maintain the site. Existing county staff and its partners would work out of the building, and the city would share the cost of the construction and purchase of the building.

But while this is a big, new step for the community, officials emphasized that this was just the beginning.

“This is part of helping to solve a homelessness problem,” Klekamp said. “There has to be a continuum.”

More affordable housing and upstream services also need to be part of the long-term solution, officials said. But this was a step in the right direction.

County board chair Monica Kruse said if all goes right this could be known as the “La Crosse Model,” setting a precedent in somewhat unchartered territory.

“I think it is a great sign of the collaboration that we are willing to engage in to solve some important problems in our community,” Kruse said. “We’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with ARPA funds to attack some of the problems that have been vexing us for many years and I think today is a good start to that.”

Together, both municipalities received nearly $45 million in ARPA funding. The county currently has task forces who are preparing to pitch ideas on spending of this funding to the board this month, including the bridge housing featured in this latest project.

A timeline on this downtown project has not yet been defined.