La Crosse’s Houska Park temporary location for homeless population under city’s watch

Homeless population shifting from Cameron Park to Houska Park by design as La Crosse searches for solutions

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Tents are popping up in La Crosse’s Houska Park because of the city’s homeless population. La Crosse leaders say as many as 50 tents are down there at one time.

Many people will remember Tent City that existed in Riverside North a few years back, but La Crosse leaders say this is different.

“There’s a lot of complex issues involved,” said Jay Odegaard, director of La Crosse’s Park, Recreation and Forestry Department.

There are people whose address is 400 King St. or Cameron Park.

“Nationally we need to come to terms and try to figure out a solution,” said Cheryl Hancock, executive director of the Coulee Recovery Center.

Unsheltered people are not a problem unique to La Crosse, according to Hancock.

“We recognize that a number of them are dealing with untreated mental health and substance use disorders,” Hancock said.

There’s a tale of two populations here at Cameron Park, and La Crosse police said that’s a safety concern. There’s a playground there where families bring their children. Right across the street, there’s a La Crosse School District building.

News 8 Now did a police public records request for the calls for service for this park within a two-month span, and there were 152 calls for service.

Most of these calls are standard community policing. However, several calls deal with dangerous people and drugs. Police found a body on June 6 from a suspected drug overdose.

“We’re looking at safety,” Odegaard said. “That’s our number one concern.”

La Crosse city parks leaders had an idea. That population moved to Houska Park in La Crosse. Odegaard said this is not ideal, but it’s a better situation for the city. Everyone in this park has a story, and Odegaard’s hope is this will provide a safe space for these people until solutions are found.

“One thing that an area like this provides is a little bit of stability for the social resources that can come in,” Odegaard said.

Mayor Mitch Reynolds understands the fact this looks like another Tent City. However, he says this is an active approach to homelessness.

“There weren’t really good options and this was the last one on the list,” Reynolds said.

“The difference here is that the city is taking an active role in making sure that our unsheltered population is safe. Tent City was really the city just say, ‘Okay, you go and do your thing and we’ll just make do.”

A temporary solution taking the danger out of one park, buying city leaders time to help, and giving these people a place where they feel welcome.

The city is in the hiring process for a new homeless coordinator to find solutions to this issue. That will be a full-time position.  The city also hired a person in the parks department to monitor what goes on at Houska Park. Parks officials are providing bathroom and garbage resources at the park to keep it clean.