La Crosse Common Council member wants to nix Houska Park as official campground for homeless

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Roughly two weeks after the La Crosse parks board approved Houska Park as an official campground for the homeless population, one Common Council member asked the city’s Judiciary & Administration Committee to reject it Tuesday night.

The 5-1 vote to deny council member Chris Woodard’s request came a month before the city’s rental agreement with the EconoLodge, where the homeless are living now, expires. Roughly 100 people are staying at that hotel.

Woodard says he hopes the EconoLodge agreement can be extended.

Houska Park is in Woodard’s district, and he says people tell him they believe it’s not the best place for homeless people to go during the summer.

“I think that a lot of constituents would be discouraged from going there,” Woodard said.

Woodard, who wrote the resolution, also points to uncertainty with the April weather and thinks there should be an extension with the EconoLodge.

“I think that would be best for all parties involved,” Woodard said.

Such an extension would have to be negotiated. Asked whether extension figures were available, Brian Sampson, the city’s homeless services coordinator, said he learned Tuesday that the cost for April and May, including counseling and other services the city is providing, would be $541,000 and for three months, April-June, would be $802,000.

Last week, the council unanimously approved the city’s buying the Maple Grove Motel as temporary housing for the homeless.

But it’s not clear when the site will be ready to take them in.

Woodard says he wants the unsheltered to stay at the EconoLodge until Maple Grove can accept them, and he is asking for partners to help cover the costs.

“I think if we have multiple agencies come up and help us…I think this is something we can do,” Woodard said.

But there’s a problem with Maple Grove: The motel can house just 32 people at once.

Parks, Recreation & Forestry Department director Jay Odegaard says there must be a place to go for those who can’t get a motel room.

“Therein lies the need for Houska Park, in my opinion,” Odegaard said.

Last year, Odegaard and other city leaders chose Houska Park as a temporary living space for the homeless.

So the city does have experience sheltering homeless individuals there.

“While nobody is going to jump to this was a great solution, it did suffice for those spring, summer months,” Odegaard said.

Regardless of whether Houska Park is an official campground, Odegaard says homeless individuals still are going to gravitate to public parks.

“I think the idea that we’re going to get away from living in parks is unrealistic,” Odegaard said. “So, for me, I would like to provide the amenities and do it the right way.”

Odegaard also says it’s easier to provide services to unsheltered people when they’re in one location, rather than scattered throughout town.

The park board’s Houska Park camping proposal will go to the Common Council for a final recommendation. That vote is expected to take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the South Side Neighborhood Center.

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