The Chippewa Valley isn’t the kind of place that usually comes to mind when people think about homelessness. But the issue is hardly confined to major cities.

Menomonie doesn’t fit the stereotypes. But the shelter serving the community is on track to provide a cumulative 9,000 nights of protection this year. That’s up more than 40 percent compared to 2020.

Eau Claire isn’t a massive urban area with people huddled in doorways. But a summer survey found 32 people living outside on a night marked by bad weather. And the summer began with the death of Marilyn Roeber, a homeless woman found on a bench downtown that often served as her bed.

Homelessness itself often doesn’t fit what people think it looks like. Someone who sleeps on friends’ couches or bounces from one relative’s home to another because they don’t have a place of their own is homeless. The person who spends a summer camping in a tent out of necessity rather than recreation is, too.

The reality of the situation is clear. Padraig Gallagher, the executive director of Stepping Stones in Menomonie, said there’s a waitlist for shelter services. “We have averaged 28 households on our waitlist in 2021,” he said, before adding that figure was up to 41 early this week, driven by the arrival of fall temperatures.

Officials in both Menomonie and Eau Claire have addressed it in recent months. Plans to expand the Sojourner House in Ottumwa have been mooted, though concerns remain about the idea. A new shelter in Menomonie has a target opening date of 2023-24.

Homelessness is a complex issue. The economy plays a role for some. The region lacks the amount of affordable housing it needs. Many people are only a bad break away from being unable to afford rent. For others, issues like mental health come to the forefront. A one-size approach won’t work because the issue itself lacks a single cause.

While few object to the fundamental concept of helping, there’s also an understandable concern about where and how efforts are made to shelter people, and what the effects on the immediate area may be. That’s why it’s a mistake to think that approval of any one change at such agencies eliminates the need for dialogue. Being a good neighbor needs to include ongoing efforts at communication and a willingness to engage in what can be difficult discussions.

As elusive as solutions are, it is encouraging to see that local communities and advocates remain committed to finding ways to help. They have also engaged skeptics. When neighbors complained, with clear justification, about the conduct of some of those who left Sojourner House each day, advocates from the facility made an effort to speak with them. They recognized the difference between those who object to the mere presence of a shelter and those who rightly complained about others using their yards as open air toilets. Those discussions led to some adjustments in the plans, including additional fencing and lighting.

It would be naïve to think the steps in Eau Claire or Menomonie will solve this issue on their own. Far larger communities have thrown far greater resources into the effort to care for those who don’t have a home. Those efforts have found varying levels of benefit, but none have eradicated homelessness.

Support for efforts to help those in need is very nearly universal. The majority of religions include a call for adherents to care for those who need help. Christian alms, tzedakah in Judaism and zakat in Islam all express the fundamental need to assist others. The impulse is a cornerstone of many humanistic philosophies that have nothing to do with faith as well.

The work will continue. It’s one of the societal challenges that will most likely never be entirely overcome. But an inability to finish such a task does not relieve us of the need to pursue success. If we can’t change the world for everyone, we can at least change it for some. And you never really know where that may lead.