EAU CLAIRE — Homeless residents are bracing to spend even more time than usual out in the elements this winter in Eau Claire.
As if having no place to call home and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t challenging enough, the city’s homeless population now faces the prospect of enduring winter without any guarantee of refuge from the cold — during the day or even at night.
That’s because, for the first time in years, the community has no facility where homeless individuals can hang out during the day and no warming center for those turned away when Sojourner House, the city’s largest homeless shelter, reaches capacity.
The situation has advocates sounding the alarm.
“This is an urgent crisis. We have met winter ... and this will be the first year that our unhoused neighbors have nowhere to go,” said Susan Wolfgram, co-chair of the Affordable Housing Task Force for Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope, a local community justice organization best known as JONAH.
“It’s extremely dire,” said Libby Richter, community resource specialist with L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library. “I’m seeing individuals who are becoming desperate because they don’t have anyplace to stay.”
The advocates stressed that the consequences of people being forced to stay outside for long stretches during a Wisconsin winter can be life-threatening.
If nothing changes, Wolfgram said, “There is no doubt in my mind that we are going to see more deaths, and many of them go unnoticed, because who’s looking for them?”
Nathan Dougherty, housing outreach coordinator for Western Dairyland Economic Opportunity Council, shared similar fears.
“The priority for us right now is finding somewhere safe for these people to go during these cold weather days so we can avoid people dying out on the street,” said Dougherty, who serves with Richter on a local Gaps and Needs Committee, an offshoot of the Dairyland Housing Coalition formed this spring to identify and fill gaps in services for the homeless. “I hope we haven’t missed the window here, but as the weeks go on I start to get a sense of dread.”
The gaps committee worked with several agencies to conduct a survey this year of people experiencing homelessness to assess their greatest needs. Top identified needs included securing their own apartment, finding a place to stay during the day and having access to bathrooms, food, health care, transit, storage and laundry facilities.
Committee members advocated for free bus passes for homeless folks to address the transportation problem, and that program started two weeks ago in Eau Claire.
While bus passes will help people access services and jobs and stay warm en route, the schedule still has gaps. The program doesn’t address the critical need for homeless individuals to have a warm place to go this winter during the day or on nights when Sojourner House, the shelter operated by Catholic Charities, reaches its capacity of 53 people.
The Eau Claire Plan Commission approved a Catholic Charities expansion proposal this year that would roughly double the size of Sojourner House but not increase its bed capacity. However, the added space would allow the shelter to stop using bunk beds and provide guests with more space to reduce the chances of illness spreading.
So far this fall, the facility hasn’t been completely full at night — occupancy floated around 39 last weekend, said Tracy Rieger, director of community homeless facilities for Catholic Charities. But it has routinely hit capacity in past years during cold spells.
The absence of a day center became an issue when Sojourner House moved back to its regular downtown site in April after spending much of the early part of the pandemic in temporary large locations — Hobbs Ice Arena and the former Hansen’s IGA store in Shopko Plaza — to allow for more social distancing during a health emergency.
At the temporary sites, Sojourner House partnered with Lutheran Social Services to provide 24/7 care. But that ended when Sojourner returned to its 618 S. Barstow St. location and its previous 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. hours of operation. At the same time, Lutheran Social Services changed its model from offering daytime drop-in services at the former Positive Avenues to offering more comprehensive services through scheduled or walk-in options at the renamed Gaining Ground.
The homeless population lost another option for a daytime hangout with the unavailability of the public library, which is undergoing renovation and temporarily moved to a site out of downtown.
The result, advocates said, is that many homeless people are seeking refuge under bridges, in tents, on park benches and in doorways even with temperatures dropping into the teens and 20s at night.
They are doing whatever is necessary to satisfy the basic human need to be safe and warm, in some cases even allowing themselves to be trafficked in exchange for a place to stay, according to the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, a local group that advocates for and provides services to the homeless.
The forecast for many of these individuals is bleak, said Michelle Pride, a volunteer with the street ministry, which distributes food, water, blankets and clothing to the homeless twice a week as well as conducting regular welfare checks.
“How do you face spending all day outside with limited resources for restrooms, for water, for food and for shelter day after day after day even if you’re lucky enough to get a spot at an overnight shelter?” Pride asked.
Wolfgram said homeless residents have the same needs as everyone else, and “they need to be seen as basic human rights.”
Joe Volk, executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, said cities across the state have seen a rise over the past year in what’s called unsheltered homelessness, which he defined as “people who are just kind of living outside.”
He attributed it primarily to fallout from the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 and the end of the federal eviction moratorium. Local advocates also have cited the affordable housing shortage as a key factor.
“Throughout the state cities are struggling with an increase of unsheltered homeless people living in parks and downtown areas,” Volk said, describing a situation that has attracted much attention in Eau Claire due to its increased visibility. “That’s pretty common right now.”
The differences come in how communities respond to the issue, Volk said, noting that the most dramatic action occurred in Madison, where city officials replaced a bunch of small tent cities with what he described as a city-sponsored encampment in a park.
Several cities have used federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to rent a number of hotel rooms for the winter, when surviving outside becomes much more difficult in Wisconsin, he said.
Among the challenges facing local government, nonprofit agencies and churches hoping to help fill the service gaps in Eau Claire are a lack of identified spaces large enough to meet the potential demand, and the shortage of workers or volunteers to staff a day center or overnight warming center such as churches have provided in the past, Richter said.
“It’s been rough,” Richter said. “Hopefully, we have a solution before the worst of winter hits.”
The problems are nobody’s fault, Wolfgram said, because no single group has the money or responsibility to provide all homeless services.
Wolfgram suggested community leaders consider implementing temporary emergency measures to keep people warm this winter and establishing a steering committee to start working toward more permanent solutions before next winter arrives.
The hope, Dougherty said, is that the increased visibility of homeless people stuck outside in the cold will create more public awareness of the problem and prompt some residents to step up and help find a solution.
“We’re just hoping and praying for a miracle at this point,” he said.