LA CROSSE, Wis. - Despite community agencies effectively ending veteran homelessness in La Crosse, the latest count numbers show there are more unsheltered homeless people now than this time last winter.
Couleecap, an agency that serves low-income people in our area, organizes a "point in time" count twice a year to get an estimate on how many people in the La Crosse area are going without shelter.
On Thursday, they found that the number of people without shelter is up about six from last January, showing that despite best efforts, there's still a lot of work to be done in fighting homelessness.
"It's too many people on our streets,” housing and community services director at Couleecap, Kim Cable, said.
Way before the crack of dawn, volunteers from various agencies braved the elements to gain some insight on the people in our community who weather the cold each night.
"It's essentially a street count of people who are unsheltered on that day, so it's kind of a snapshot of what homelessness looks like in our community,” Cable said.
Five teams set out at 3:30 a.m., searching parks and parking ramps -- places those who are homeless tend to spend the night.
"We know where to look for them, so that's a helpful piece of what our outreach teams do,” Cable said.
The count is done in both July and January, but the winter weather poses its own unique challenges.
"Tonight, we have our boots on and we're tromping through the snow,” Tristine Bauman, Franciscan Hospitality House coordinator, said. “I would say in the summer there are potentially more people unsheltered due to the weather vs cold and frigid weather like we have now. Our shelters are full."
The "point in time" number is higher in the summers. The point of time count from last July was 42. The initial count this January is 24, up from 18 last January, but Cable said that's a moving target, and can depend on a number of factors, like weather.
Cable said without the big effort to house homeless veterans, that number could have been higher.
"Nonetheless, it's too many,” she said. “It's too many people out there.”
The count isn't about just a number. It's to offer those who are homeless shelter or a kind gesture, and to raise awareness of a real issue.
"I think it's a fairly hidden problem in La Crosse,” Cable said. “It's not something that stands out in La Crosse like it might in larger communities."
But volunteers are hoping this snapshot on a chilly January morning will serve as a reminder.
"I think it's important for people to know we have people who do not have shelter or housing in our community,” Cable said.
The La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness is currently deciding on the next subgroup of the homeless population to tackle, after helping homeless veterans this past fall. They're planning to announce their new goal this spring.
The Couleecap's point in time numbers eventually get used by the state and federal government as part of a compilation of homelessness data nationally.
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