La Crosse Catholic Charities homeless resource center remains snagged after procedural joust

City committee action allows issue to return sooner than rejecting request outright

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — The La Crosse Judiciary and Administration Committee faced a Shakespearean dilemma over what to do, or not to do, Tuesday night.

Should members decline to adopt an ordinance change to allow a homeless daytime resource center in the Washburn Neighborhood or deny the proposed change outright?

The seemingly subtle distinction carried a heavy procedural weight: Not adopting it would allow Catholic Charities to bring the issue back in a month, while rejecting it would make the agency wait a year to revisit the matter.

Ultimately, the committee voted not to adopt it, allowing the possibility of an earlier return.

The irony — and cause for even more confusion — was that Catholic Charities had withdrawn its application for a zoning change during a Plan Commission meeting Monday night.

The organization did so because of resistance from the Washburn Neighborhood Association.

In withdrawing the application, Catholic Charities Executive Director Roberto Partarrieu cited confusion over the mission of the proposed center at 508 Fifth Ave. S., near Cameron Avenue.

He said his agency would meet with association members to clarify that it would be a daytime service center and not an overnight shelter.

The facility would offer access to showers and laundry, as well as resources such as financial education, career coaching, employment opportunities, and other professional services, Partarrieu said.

The WNA has no desire to meet again with Catholic Charities, association member Chris Woodard told the J&A committee during a public meeting at its virtual meeting Tuesday night.

“We want to send a clear message to Catholic Charities … We appreciate what Catholic Charities does, but it (the center) doesn’t fit our neighborhood plan,” Woodard said. “As a board, we don’t want to continue” to talk about the proposal, he said.

Councilmember Scott Neumeister lobbied to deny the request outright as a show of support for the neighborhood, demonstrating that “we are here for them, and we did listen.”

Member Gary Padesky noted that he had asked Catholic Charities why it couldn’t seek a site in Onalaska or Holmen for the resource center instead of locating it in the former Mayo Clinic Health System offices.

The answer was that the greatest need is in La Crosse, he said. “One of the reasons we have a need for this is that, when policing agencies” in neighboring cities and towns encounter homeless individuals, they bring them to La Crosse, telling them that’s where the resources are, Padesky said.

“We’re being taken advantage of and need to send a message that, as generous as we are,” La Crosse alone can’t solve homelessness, he said.

The Catholic Charities office at 413 S. Third St., which includes homeless resources and houses the La Crosse Warming Center during the winter, has had 132 police calls during the past year, Padesky said.

“We have to send a message. Even though it’s a religious organization, how to do know it will follow up?” he said.

“Catholic Charities can say it will do this and do that,” but the city needs an ironclad promise that it won’t start providing other services “in disguise,” he said. “We have to stand up for ourselves and our taxpayers.”

Committee member Martin Gaul said, “I understand their (Washburn) comments, and I agree. I understand their concerns. They are the same concerns I would have.”

Catholic Charities “hearts are in the right place,” he said, adding that the agency also needs support.

Gaul acknowledged that simply not adopting would allow Catholic Charities to bring the matter back sooner.

But “I think they’ve gotten the message that there’s a slim chance to none” that the proposal would be approved, Gaul said. “They’ve gotten the message loud and clear … and heard the concerns of the neighbors and they’ve heard the concerns of the council.”

Committee member Christine Kahlow cited Catholic Charities’ reason for withdrawing the request was to talk to Washburn neighbors, even though they have made it clear the center doesn’t fit their plans. Bringing the issue up in a month would be unfair, she said.

“They have struggled and agonized over this, and it’s been emotional for them,” Kahlow said. “I don’t want to put the neighbors through another excruciating month like they’ve had.”