Last year, Whitney Tate found herself homeless, surviving on Eau Claire’s streets as best she could with the assistance of shelters and soup kitchens.
Then she had a baby girl, and a difficult homeless life became even more precarious.
“When you’re out on the streets, things are tough,” Tate, 23, said early Friday afternoon as she served meals at Positive Avenues, an Eau Claire day shelter operated by Lutheran Social Services where she volunteers.
Officials at agencies and others who deal with homelessness in Eau Claire envision a day when fewer people like Tate need to spend nights in shelters or out on the street because they don’t have homes of their own. They hope more people can obtain the food they need, come up with enough money to pay rent, find transportation to jobs or other locations, and receive the services they may need to live better lives.
Those endeavors are possible, according to a report issued recently by New York-based consultant Erin Healy, who had worked to reduce homelessness in cities across the U.S. and who visited Eau Claire in fall to ascertain the homeless situation here. But doing so will require a shift in thinking about addressing the homeless population, Healy said.
New approach needed
In her report titled “Establishing a Collaborative in Eau Claire to End Homelessness: Initial Assessment and Recommended Next Steps,” Healy states that Eau Claire has multiple strengths that make significant homeless reductions possible, such as experienced leaders working at agencies that address homelessness, willing volunteers and philanthropic resources.
However, her report notes, simply continuing with existing services is not curbing homeless numbers. Despite the growth of efforts, such as the Housing First program operated by Western Dairyland Community Action Agency, to address homelessness in recent years, the number of people without homes in Eau Claire continues to grow, those familiar with that population said.
As a lack of affordable housing for many in the city becomes a bigger issue, the number of homeless residents in the city could increase more, they said.
“There are a lot of good efforts being made now to address homelessness,” said Keith Johnathan, executive director of the city Housing Authority. “But that work is not solving the problem ... We need to come up with a different way of working on this issue.”
While Eau Claire is home to agency leaders with experience and expertise addressing homelessness, those efforts focus mainly on providing services to those without homes instead of finding ways to effectively reduce the homeless population, Healy said. She advocates forming a collaborative effort that grows the number of community partners involved with working to reduce homelessness.
Long term, she said, housing more people in need would free up resources to better address prevention efforts that could keep people from losing their homes.
Current agencies such as Western Dairyland, Catholic Charities, Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, Bolton Refuge House and others that provide shelter and services to homeless people sometimes work collaboratively, Healy said. But those organizations must work more closely, she said, and the number of groups working on homelessness should grow to more directly involve such entities as local government, L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, hospitals, the local faith community and others.
“Based on my experiences during my weeklong visit (to Eau Claire), the timing is excellent to formally launch a collaborative that focuses on ending homelessness rather than on addressing need for short-term sheltering alone,” she said in her report.
A collaborative team would be responsible for devising specific homeless-related initiatives, Healy said, and she advocates that its approach not continue the status quo but that team members take “bold action on an issue.”
While no specific approaches have been finalized, during her visit to Eau Claire, Healy described a “sprint” approach in which the collaborative would work intensely for 100 days to address a specific homeless-related problem, such as housing as many homeless individuals as possible during that time. Healy has used similar approaches in other cities, including an effort in La Crosse.
Altering how Eau Claire addresses homelessness is necessary for improved outcomes, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. She is part of the team that brought Healy here.
“We have focused on sheltering and making sure people have a roof over their head, and we have done a good job of that,” Giese said. “But we have not had a collaborative focus on housing people ... How do we make sure that homelessness is a temporary, brief experience for people and not a long-term way of being in Eau Claire?”
Doing so would have to involve increased collaboration, Giese said, and a willingness to think about homelessness differently.
“Do we have the bandwidth to say we want to do something different?” Giese said. “That is a big challenge we have to figure out.”
Among other homeless-related challenges is the lack of available housing for homeless residents seeking homes, said Ken Adler, an Eau Claire resident who is involved with addressing the city’s homeless needs. A tight rental market and a lack of affordable housing mean landlords often refuse to rent to people with evictions or criminal records, leaving some without places to live.
Western Dairyland officials said they have experienced that scenario repeatedly as they try to find homes for homeless people they serve. The agency recently learned it can expand its Housing First program by 10 tenants, but so far doing so has proven difficult as landlords have not been willing to rent to those affiliated with the initiative despite Western Dairyland’s guarantee to pay rents.
“It is a real big problem,” Adler said.
Other challenges include finding resources to provide housing and other services to more homeless people, those involved with the initiative agreed. Kelly Christianson is executive director of Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, which operates the Beacon House shelter for homeless families. She said she backs involving Healy in the Eau Claire homeless scene and believes a new approach could be beneficial, but she questions where added funding could come from as agencies like hers struggle to meet current needs.
“How do we come up with those resources,” she said, “and how do we utilize those resources more efficiently?”
Those backing the most recent plan to address homelessness hope to bring Healy back to Eau Claire. But procuring her services for six months would cost an estimated $40,000 to $50,000, money the group hasn’t garnered.
“We are very excited to bring Erin back here,” said Johnathan, of the Housing Authority, “but right now we just don’t have the money to do that.”
If that money can be obtained, he said, the group would like to kick off a homeless-related initiative in upcoming months. Despite funding and other challenges, he is optimistic a significant reduction in the number of Eau Claire residents who are homeless is possible.
“It is doable. We can do this,” Johnathan said. “There will always be a need for the shelters. But if we can do things better, we can hopefully reduce how many people need those services.”
Tate hopes a new approach to more effectively serve Eau Claire’s homeless population becomes a reality. Her situation has improved, as she and her 7-month-old daughter, Octavia, now live with a friend. She is on a waiting list for subsidized housing.
“If you stick with it, the system does work,” she said. “But it would be good if it could work more quickly for more people in need.”