The final hours: Houska Park shuts down

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — When the clock strikes midnight, water and power will shut down at Houska Park.

La Crosse’s Homeless Services coordinator Brian Sampson says the city has been working with community non-profits including the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities to find shelter for people who are homeless.

“You’re following their rules and their guides while using their facilities, appropriately,” Sampson said.

Sampson says the county has provided families with hotel vouchers, but not for individuals. There are still several tents and people at Houska Park. Sampson says the city has no immediate plans to remove the tents and will not forcibly remove anyone at Houska Park. He says the city will direct people to warming shelters, instead.

Salvation Army’s Director of Development Isaiah Thomas says roughly seven people have come to the Salvation Army seeking shelter.

“There hasn’t been like a huge overflow of individuals, but the space is available and we’re encouraging people who are seeking shelter through the winter months to come this way,” Thomas said.

Thomas says the Salvation Army is offering shelter to those who want to commit to the nonprofit’s emergency program.

“We are asking that they come this way if they are ready for a emergency program based shelter,” Thomas said.

He says people who are looking for a warming shelter will be redirected to the Catholic Charities. Sampson says once all the warming shelters reach capacity, La Crosse’s Mayor Mitch Reynolds will issue an emergency decree. The Southside Neighborhood Center and the Northside Policing Center will be used as overflow shelters only during the night.

“It would be very difficult for us to hire staff to run them during the day. I know some of the facilities we’re looking at have day time obligations already.”

Sampson says there aren’t enough dayside shelter spaces in the community, and there is a large likelihood individuals use public and private spaces around La Crosse to stay warm.

“We don’t have that once place people are able to utilize as a day center,” Sampson said.

Sampson says the City of La Crosse is committed to not criminalizing homelessness. He says tickets can be issued for trespassing or breaking a city ordinance, but not for being homeless. He says the city and area-nonprofits are doing everything they can to make sure people have a place to stay in the winter. 

“We just have to be prepared as a community and plan the best we can,” he said.