Eau Claire's New Fight Against Homelessness

Homelessness is an ever-growing problem in Eau Claire. A broad coalition is working to change that by setting a 100-day goal to find housing for chronically homeless individuals.

Julian Emerson, photos by Andrea Paulseth, Julian Emerson

Jennifer Cornett-Maloney waits outside the Sojourner House, a homeless shelter on Barstow Street in downtown Eau Claire (photo by Andrea Paulseth)
Jennifer Cornett-Maloney waits outside the Sojourner House, a homeless shelter on Barstow Street in downtown Eau Claire. (Photo by Andrea Paulseth)

Eighteen months ago, Kathleen Kinnee finally felt like her life had reached a happy place, or at least a happier place than she had known for some time.

The mother of four, then a resident of Virginia, Minnesota, was caring for three of her grandchildren, who brought much-needed joy amid a life often filled with struggles, among them the 2011 death of her husband, John, who suffered a heart attack.

Through an unforeseen series of events that included the loss of her home along with custody of her grandchildren and a diagnosis of intestinal cancer, Kinnee found herself in Eau Claire, a city she and John called home for 11 years before he died. Seeking to lift herself from the morass that had become her life, Kinnee returned six months ago.

Her return trip hasn’t been what Kinnee had hoped. Sick and without an income, Kinnee said she can’t afford to buy or rent a home here. She said she has spent her nights in Eau Claire sleeping at the Sojourner House homeless shelter in downtown Eau Claire, with friends, or on the streets. 

“I thought coming back here would be good because John and I were happy here before,” Kinnee said on a recent afternoon, tears running down her cheeks, her voice cracking. “I thought I would be happy here again. But I’m not.”

Kinnee is among what local officials who work with Eau Claire’s homeless population said is a growing number of people without a home of their own. Despite longtime services for the city’s homeless residents and others that have sprung up in recent years amid growing awareness of the issue, more people are experiencing difficulty keeping a roof over their head.

“Most nights, especially when the weather is bad, the shelters are full. There are waiting lists. There are more people losing their places to live every day, and we can’t house people fast enough to keep up.” – Mike Henry, Chippewa Valley Street Ministry

Statistics regarding homelessness are difficult to come by, in part because of the transient nature of homeless people and the sometimes fast-changing situations that can make tracking them over time challenging.

However, the number of people seeking respite at Sojourner House, the Beacon House shelter for families, Western Dairyland’s Housing First program and its homeless shelter space, and Hope Gospel Mission shelters has reached the highest levels ever seen, with shelters often packed and waiting lists commonplace. During the course of a school year more than 300 children and their families in the Eau Claire school district are homeless, and the number of other people who “couch surf” – a term used for those who stay in others’ homes, or who sleep in their vehicles, in tents, or elsewhere outdoors – is estimated to number in the hundreds or more.

The city’s increased homeless population was evident during a recent morning at Positive Avenues, a downtown day shelter for homeless people and others that is operated by Lutheran Social Services. Despite the pleasant, sunny spring weather, a couple of dozen people crowded the bottom floor of the brick building at 320 Putnam St. that houses the agency, and during a 10-minute span another half dozen entered the space.

“There are more homeless people out there, for sure,” said Kathy Stewart, a social worker at the agency. “Each week I see three to five new people show up here. They just keep coming.”

Mike Henry, leader of the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, which provides assistance to local homeless people, agreed that homeless numbers are the highest he has seen in Eau Claire.

“Look around. These people are all over,” Henry said during a recent evening when he and other street ministry volunteers spent time providing homeless residents with food, clothing, and conversation. “Most nights, especially when the weather is bad, the shelters are full. There are waiting lists. There are more people losing their places to live every day, and we can’t house people fast enough to keep up.”

In an effort to address homelessness in a more impactful way, in April a coalition composed of local housing, public health, human services, and law enforcement agencies and others – including nonprofits that work with homeless people – began a new approach. The endeavor, dubbed Eau Claire Sprint, aims to combine existing resources and find new ones in ways not attempted previously.

The effort consists of a 100-day sprint focused on housing 16 chronically homeless people – those who have been homeless for a year or more and typically are among the most difficult to find living spaces for – by the end of July. The coalition is collaborating with Erin Healy, a New York-based consultant who has worked to address homelessness in more than 70 cities across the U.S. Healy was hired after visiting Eau Claire in the fall to assess homelessness here. 

Healy is being paid $44,500 for her work in Eau Claire. Funding sources include the city and council of Eau Claire, RCU, Mayo, and the Pablo Foundation.

Kathleen Kinnee outside Positive Avenues, a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness. (Image: Julian Emerson)
Kathleen Kinnee outside Positive Avenues, a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness. (Image: Julian Emerson)

The effort was born last year as local officials recognized that despite many longtime and more recent programs to assist homeless people and reduce homelessness, the number of people in Eau Claire finding themselves without homes has continued to rise. The new approach focuses on improving collaboration between organizations to better address the specific needs of homeless residents, organizers said.

While groups such as Western Dairyland Community Action Agency, Chippewa Valley Promise, Hope Gospel Mission, Bolton Refuge House, and others have worked together on some homeless initiatives, those efforts could be more collaborative, organizers said. In addition, organizers said, more resources and input from the greater community is needed to more fully address homelessness. 

“There has been a lack of community ownership of homelessness and possible solutions,” said Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director. “It is a community problem and it needs a community solution. That is what this new approach is trying to do.”

Giese and others said existing organizations working to curb homelessness have done admirable work for many years. But the higher number of homeless people despite additional programs on that front in recent years is evidence of the need for a different approach, they said.

“Nobody is saying the system is broken,” said Keith Johnathan, executive director of the city’s Housing Authority. “It is working for some people in a reactive way to the problem of homelessness. But it’s not working to solve the problem. … We have to look at approaching this differently.”

•••

Jessica Halling and Alex Camacho were exhausted. Late in the afternoon of May 14, a warm spring day on which the temperature had topped 70 degrees, the duo had walked nearly five miles under a bright sun from their jobs near Oakwood Mall to the Sojourner House homeless shelter in downtown Eau Claire.

Halling and Camacho said they have been homeless for the last five months after being evicted from their Rice Lake home when Camacho lost his job. Halling’s grandmother subsequently brought them to Eau Claire, where they eventually landed jobs. Halling works at Taco John’s at the mall and Camacho works at Applebee’s nearby. They said the usually take the bus to work, but on their return trip this day they didn’t have bus passes.

“Thank you,” a grateful Halling said as a Chippewa Valley Street Ministry worker handed her a bottle of water. “This will taste really good after that hot walk.”   

Halling and Camacho chatted amicably with street ministry volunteers, then headed to Sojourner House across the street, where they would spend the night. Despite their struggles, they said they remain optimistic they will find a home if they work hard and make the right connections.

“You have to believe things will get better, right?” Camacho said as he crossed the street toward Sojourner House. 

•••

Finding ways to address homelessness more effectively in Eau Claire won’t be easy, those involved with the new approach said. Chief among challenges to housing 16 chronically homeless people by the end of July will be finding homes for them in an extremely tight housing market in which many landlords are reluctant to rent to that population. So far two of them have been housed and two more are scheduled to move into housing on June 1, officials said.

“That is probably the biggest challenge to this sprint,” Healy said. “We don’t have enough housing to meet demand, and not enough landlords willing to rent to the people we are trying to house.”

Rental housing has a vacancy rate of only about 2 to 3%, local officials said, meaning landlords typically have lots of renters to choose from when deciding who will live in the homes they own. With people with good rental histories and ample, stable incomes seeking to rent, owners can be choosy and don’t have to pick people with past evictions and/or criminal records.

Adam Pennekamp, an Eau Claire property manager who is part of a broad team involved in the 100-day sprint, said finding enough available homes for another 12 homeless people by the deadline could prove difficult given the relatively small housing stock and the reluctance of many landlords to rent to a population they consider high-risk.

“There just isn’t enough housing available to meet the demand,” he said. “A lot of places get snapped up before they even hit the market.”

Justin Chapman, Jr., 10, and his sister, Iris Chapman, 3, work on a puzzle on a recent evening with Brittney Angeli, a UW-Eau Claire student volunteer with the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, which provides items and services to homeless people. The Chapman family was homeless but now has a home of their own. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Justin Chapman, Jr., 10, and his sister, Iris Chapman, 3, work on a puzzle on a recent evening with Brittney Angeli, a UW-Eau Claire student volunteer with the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, which provides items and services to homeless people. The Chapman family was homeless but now has a home of their own. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

The 16 targeted for housing as part of the sprint program will be housed as part of Housing First, a federal program operated on the premise that providing housing is the single most important key to reducing homelessness. The program typically houses people who have been homeless for a long time, or those deemed most at risk if they remain on the streets, and then links them to needed services via caseworkers.

As part of Housing First, Western Dairyland pays clients’ rents and guarantees it also will pay for any damages they cause to homes. To house the 16 clients, single-bedroom or efficiency units are needed, and Housing First limits rent payments to about $625 per month for the former and $550 for the latter.

Rental units at those prices can be difficult to find in the current market, officials said, especially those that meet standards required of Housing First homes. The average rent in Eau Claire currently tops $800 monthly, with rent for many units more than $1,000. Those costs have nearly doubled in the past decade, figures show. 

Adding to the problem, having UW-Eau Claire in the city means many leases for next school year have already been signed, further reducing the number of available units for homeless residents, Pennekamp said.

On May 16 landlords and others attended a meeting organized by those involved with the new homelessness endeavor. Several tenants spoke about the importance of landlords’ willingness to rent to them despite their lack of money or past criminal convictions, how having a home allowed them to get their lives back on track. A couple of landlords told success stories of tenants they took a chance on via the Housing First program, tenants who had been homeless, had eviction records, and/or had a history of infractions.

But other landlords said they and many others are reluctant to take a chance on renting to homeless people, even with the guarantees Western Dairyland offers. A couple of them told stories about damaged units and missing rent after having rented to people who had been homeless or had past evictions.

“If I can fill a unit with a reliable renter, why would I take a chance on someone with a spotty record?” one local landlord asked.

Several landlords said they would be more willing to rent to people who complete a training program teaching them to be good tenants. Those involved with the sprint are providing that training to prospective renters to make them more attractive prospects to landlords.

•••

Justin Chapman’s life is no picnic. The Eau Claire man has had trouble holding down a job and currently is unemployed, spending his days caring for his three children while his wife works at a fast food restaurant. Chapman and his wife, Sara Jane, face challenges providing care for their 5-year-old son, Quentin, who has autism.

But Chapman and his wife feel fortunate for the lives they lead. In late 2017 they spent four months homeless after Chapman lost his job. They spent time at a shelter before Chippewa Valley Street Ministry helped them line up subsidized housing with the city and paid for their rent deposit and helped with food, Chapman said. Sara Jane landed a job, and by living tight and with help paying for rent and food stamps, the family gets by.

“We’re struggling, but we’re happy to be where we are,” Chapman said as his kids interacted nearby with street ministry interns. “We know what it’s like to be in a worse place.”

Chapman thanked the organizations that have assisted his family, helping them find their footing. “There are so many different programs here to help people like us,” he said. “If you’re willing to do the work, they will help.”

Chapman said he’s optimistic about his children’s future and he and his wife are committed to giving them as many opportunities as possible. But he acknowledged challenges loom.

“We have to pay for auto repairs,” he said. “We have our auto insurance due this month, and I don’t know how we’re going to afford it. … People like us, we’re always just one bill away from being homeless.”

•••

Besides a lack of available housing, willing landlords, and working with a larger number of entities that includes some who are new, the plan to house 16 chronically homeless people during the next two months faces another challenge in the form of a lack of data.

Housing officials attempting to find homes for the 16 have identified them based on a list of criteria people without homes have given via detailed surveys measuring their risk of remaining on the street. But others who face similar danger if they remain homeless may not be included in the survey, in part because of their reticence to be included for a variety of reasons.

In addition, Healy said, specific figures regarding such information as the number of people losing their housing and those in need is hard to come by, making setting goals and measuring them problematic. Challenges tracking many homeless people, who sometimes lead transient lives, add to the problem, she said.

Homeless statistics are tough to come by in part, Healy said, because they are designed to provide specific information to federal funding sources to justify grants and not to provide up-to-the minute data.

“You need to know who is homeless at any given time, who has lost their home, and who has been moved into housing … and right now we don’t have those numbers readily available,” Healy said. “You can’t solve this problem without those kinds of numbers, and we are working really hard on getting them.”

Others involved with the Eau Claire Sprint acknowledged difficulties regarding accurate local homeless statistics. Those numbers could provide a factual basis, they said, for implementing needed changes.

“We need to change the culture, to look at hard numbers and see what is working and what is not,” said Paul Savides, a longtime member of Joining Our Neighbors Advancing Hope (JONAH), a local faith-based organization, who is working as part of the Sprint Team. “If something isn’t working, we need to be willing to try something else.”

•••

After more than a year without a roof over her head, Kathleen Kinnee was on the verge of obtaining housing. A social worker had linked her to Bolton Refuge House and subsequent discussions led to Kinnee likely qualifying for the city subsidized housing program. Finally, it seemed, her life would take an upturn.

Then, in mid-May, Kinnee found herself in a different setting, the Eau Claire County Jail. Police had arrested her on a methamphetamine charge. She was released from jail but now faces an uphill battle to qualify for housing.

“Drug use, especially meth, is a raging crisis here,” said Kathy Stewart, the social worker at Positive Avenues. “It’s awful to watch. You see people wasting away before your very eyes.”

•••

Members of the Eau Claire Sprint Team, who number about 50, hope the current 100-day sprint has a bigger impact beyond housing its 16-person target. The initiative is meant to change the way the Eau Claire area responds to homelessness, making the effort more broad-based and more action-focused, with specifically defined outcomes.

While those involved with the process acknowledge challenges so far, they said they are optimistic a new mindset and methodology can lead to positive changes on Eau Claire’s homeless front.

“We know a different approach is needed,” Savides said.

That happened in La Crosse, which contracted with Healy in the fall of 2016 and experienced subsequent success with three separate 100-day sprints involving homeless veterans, chronically homeless residents, and homeless families. Healy continues to work on homeless issues there. La Crosse agencies are currently working to form a structure to best address homelessness, they said.

“They’re working on the question of ‘How do you sustain the energy you build when you do a 100-day sprint?’ ” Healy said. “That’s one of the challenges. How do you use the sprints to really change the way you work on homelessness, to get housing for as many people as possible?”

Those involved with Eau Claire homeless efforts hope that is an attainable goal.

“Once we can overcome the obstacles, once we learn to work together more effectively, it will lead us to a much better place regarding homelessness,” Johnathan said.    

Julian Emerson is a longtime Eau Claire-based journalist who has won multiple state and national awards for his stories on an array of poverty-related topics. His 2014 series about homelessness in the Leader-Telegram helped garner “Newspaper of the Year” honors from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, and led to numerous efforts to better address the needs of homeless people in Eau Claire.

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