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La Crosse seeks to make homeless population a ‘top priority’

La Crosse Tribune

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — In what officials are deeming a “historic” meeting between city of La Crosse and La Crosse County leaders, officials from both local governments are moving forward with plans to buy a downtown building as part of a long-term plan to fight homelessness.

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

The current building is costing just under $2.2 million, officials said, and the city and county plan to split that expense 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 over details of 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 to the 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 took no official steps — such as making an offer on the building. Local officials have generally come out in favor of the proposal, which is seen as part of a much bigger plan, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

In recent years, homelessness has become only more and more prevalent, officials said.

There were 160 adults on a “prioritization list” by Oct. 31, and the same number of people using the three different shelters around the city. Beyond that, 56 families in the School District of La Crosse are struggling with homelessness, including 80 students, a situation Reynolds called “profound.”

The 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 now 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.”

The housing would not be used as apartments for rent for long periods but rather as in-between living spaces. If for any reason it could no longer be used as bridge housing, officials said, it could then serve as additional affordable housing in the city. But no official discussions have yet been held 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 plans.

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

The chamber has used its own downtown building as its headquarters since about 2014. Before that, it was used by Associated Bank. The building has just under 20,000 square feet, officials said, and its lot occupies about 1.6 acres.

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

If approved and purchased, the new housing most likely would be under construction by April — when the lease on the temporary shelter would be up.

“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.

Since the project is still in its early stages, many of the nitty gritty details are not yet known. How the cost would exactly be split among municipalities, if taxpayer dollars would be needed and if nearby places will have say are all questions yet to be answered.

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 although this is a big, new step for the city, officials stressed that it 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 services also need to be part of the long-term plan, 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 now has task forces that are preparing to pitch to the board this month their idea on how the money should be spent. There is no official schedule for the work yet.

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