EAU CLAIRE — The conventional wisdom that Erin Klaus heard for years was to call the police nonemergency phone number when her downtown shop was visited by a homeless person that raised concern among employees or customers.
She was shocked to learn that oft-repeated advice was not the place to call for all situations involving Eau Claire’s homeless population.
“What should be our first contact?” Klaus asked a panel assembled of social service providers assembled Thursday night to address questions from downtown businesses.
Representatives from Western Dairyland, Bolton Refuge House, Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities said they’re here to take those phone calls.
Jeanne Semb, Western Dairyland’s director of housing services, said many of the local social services organizations have on-call staff who are able to meet people throughout the community.
She also noted that the different agencies work together to connect people with resources they need, so it shouldn’t matter which one you reach first.
“We’re ‘no wrong door’ agencies,” Semb said.
The panel discussion, part of Downtown Eau Claire Inc.’s Idea Lounge series, was held after the organization heard from numerous businesses about a need to talk about issues involving the homeless and learn about resources that are available.
Lt. Jim Southworth of the Eau Claire Police Department clarified which situations officers will respond to and which ones they won’t. For instance, reports of people sleeping on park benches do not result in an officer telling them to move along.
“We can’t do anything about that. That’s a public bench,” he said.
If people are loitering on private property, Southworth suggests that owners first try talking to them before calling police.
“We want the community to ask these people to move along first if they’re on your private property,” he said.
Police will get involved in situations where a crime is occurring, such as stealing or creating a criminal disturbance, Southworth said.
Prior to Thursday’s Idea Lounge, DECI surveyed downtown businesses about their awareness of community resources for the homeless.
Businesses were generally aware of resources available, but they felt less knowledgeable about guidelines or procedures for reporting concerns related to homeless people, according to the survey results.
Calling the police nonemergency phone line was a common response when a problem arises, but some responding to the anonymous survey stated they would prefer to help people instead of reporting them.
Libby Richter, community resources specialist at L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, said calling the police on someone who doesn’t have housing can make that person a less appealing tenant to prospective landlords.
“By calling police, you’re creating another barrier to them getting housing,” Richter said.
Business owners in the anonymous survey did report impacts on their establishments they attributed to people living on the streets.
Complaints included excess litter, bodily wastes outside of businesses and customers and employees who felt uncomfortable due to the behavior of homeless people loitering outside their stores.
But some who answered the survey wanted to know what businesses could do to help people in need of housing, medical care, social services and jobs.
“There are some in the business community looking at this in a way that we want to work on this as a community, not a problem to get out of here,” said Klaus, who co-owns Tangled Up in Hue and sits on the board of the South Barstow Business Improvement District.
Along with calls DECI has gotten from businesses since downtown homeless shelter Sojourner House reopened in April, Thursday’s event was also spurred on by the recent death of a woman found on a bench along South Barstow Street.
Marilyn Roeber, 66, had often slept on a bench on the 400 block of S. Barstow St., but on June 16 she did not wake up. Police reported there was nothing suspicious about her death — no signs of trauma or indications of drug or alcohol use.
Several on Thursday’s panel mentioned contacts they’d had with Roeber and attempts they made to get help for her prior to her death.