La Crosse homeless move back to Houska Park after Econo Lodge housing agreement expires

City leaders continue to evaluate permanent options for permanent housing

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — Dozens of homeless individuals in La Crosse moved back to Houska Park after the city’s agreement with the Econo Lodge expired. As of Monday, more than 70 tents were in the park.

La Crosse homeless coordinator Brian Sampson would like a more permanent plan by the end of September. Sampson is not the only one hoping for a brighter future for these people.

One person from La Crosse speaks from experience.

“Without this we’d be all over the city.” said Matthew, who lives in Houska Park.

Sometimes life creates questions left unanswered.

“We’ve all lost something in our lives,” Matthew said.

The common denominator to homelessness in Matthew’s eyes involves something lost.

“Been out here a long time,” Matthew said. “Nine years as a matter of fact.”

Everyone living in Houska Park, Matthew said, has lost jobs, family and friends. They need support when obstacles appear.

“Don’t doubt it,” Matthew said. “It can happen to anybody at any time — anywhere.”

When there’s nowhere to turn, they sleep outside.

“Nine years is an awful long time,” Matthew said.

For decades, La Crosse leaders have exhausted words at city council meetings trying to fix this very issue.

“If that answer was easy, it would have already been done,” Sampson said.

Last June, the city started by moving unsheltered people away from downtown La Crosse. Last summer, the city was making a last-ditch effort to find one location to put the homeless. Officials settled on one location, Houska Park, but this summer, it’s an official campground.

The city’s contract to house unsheltered people over the winter with the Econo Lodge kept them warm, but it also fueled people’s concerns. Not to mention the city’s failed attempt to buy the Maple Grove Motel as a more permanent location.

“It was just a difficult decision all around for everyone,” Sampson said.

Sampson said he’s ready to move past the Maple Grove Motel.

“We can’t fix anything that happened in the past,” Sampson said. “We can’t make anything different.”

One day after the Econo Lodge agreement ended, people pitched more than 70 tents in Houska Park. As far as the scope of the number, Sampson said, “Yeah, ideally, we’d want zero.”

Nonetheless, more than 70 stories like Matthew’s.

“We want to get as many people into housing first off,” Sampson said.

Matthew shares this hope, not just for himself.

“Everybody else out here gets housed,” Matthew said. “Because they’re all my friends and my family. These people become my family out here.”

A family that’s lost the lives they once lived.

“They’re grinding every day out there,” Sampson said. “We also have to grind right there with them. We have to work hard, build those relationships.”

A problem Matthew’s tried to overcome for more than nine years. A problem he hopes others won’t give up on before finding the answers.

La Crosse is spending $200,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money to make park improvements, including $20,000 to hire a private security firm.

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La Crosse homeless move back to Houska Park after Econo Lodge housing agreement expires