Wisconsin News

Number of families in shelter at Salvation Army spikes

LA CROSSE, Wis. - The Salvation Army in La Crosse is struggling to make space as it's flooded with families in need of a place to stay.

Traditionally, the majority of the homeless population is made up of single men, but that trend may be changing.

Salvation Army staff said the number of families has grown to more than 40 percent of the shelter population, with 10 families staying there currently.


Compared to this time last year, the number of children at the shelter has more than doubled.

But the answer to reversing those statistics is more complicated than it may seem.

Sarah Shilts is staying at the Salvation Army shelter with her two daughters and fiance.

She said it's not an ideal place to raise a family.

"It's tough to get this one to sleep when you're in a room with other families and they're trying to get their children to go to bed," said Shilts.

But for many families like Shilts', it's the only choice they have for now.

"We came back in September and we were here until the first of December. We found nice 3 bedroom house and we moved out. Everything was going good until we weren't able to make one of our rent payments, so we ended up coming back," said Shilts.

She's not alone, Salvation Army staff said they've seen a sharp increase in the number of families turning to them for help.

"We have people sleeping in less than ideal situations. We have families and children sleeping on couches, on roll out beds, on cots not in a room, in lounge areas that are used for a play room or TV areas," said Salvation Army Director of Social Services Kelley Bundy.

Bundy said families keep coming back because La Crosse simply doesn't have enough transitional housing services to meet the need.    

"If they were able to get into a transitional living program they would be able to work with some type of staff member to really develop some of those budgeting skills, how to keep your house clean, how to work with your landlord, how to navigate community resources for a much longer period of time, which would hopefully prevent them from coming back to the shelter setting," said Bundy.

Shilts said the other main challenge is finding affordable housing, when you're on a limited income.

"I know with the city's waiting list, you have to sit there and wait until they have the funding available again and go through the process all over again," said Shilts. "Take one step at a time, that's all you can do."

There are some transitional housing services in the area like Coulee Cap, which serves four area counties.
Staff said they have to turn away about 20 families a month because they don't have room in their program.

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