One question has lingered since the Feb. 14 demise of Starting Points, an agency to help the poor.
Where do the homeless in Chippewa County go to start to get help?
That question wasn’t resolved at Monday’s Mission Coalition meeting at the First Presbyterian Church in Chippewa Falls. But the first steps were taken with the participation of members of area churches and the agencies that are helping the poor.
The opening of an office of the L.E. Phillips Career Development Center at 508 N. Bridge St. will help, said J. Joy LaMartina, a member of the coalition. “There will be at least a place where a person will go,” she said.
The CDC will have some vouchers for the homeless to stay on a temporary basis in area motels.
Monday’s meeting at the church drew more than 40 people, and LaMartina was encouraged by the response. The goal of the session was to get momentum for various groups to collaborate, and she said the session reflected a sense of caring by the community and interest from the faith-based community to get involved.
“I felt like there was a real understanding on how complex this situation was and how much need there is,” she said.
Larry Winter, director of Chippewa County’s Human Services Department, spelled out the depth of that need by citing statistics:
— The Food Share program served 618 households, or 4.5 percent of the county’s population, in 2000. Last year, the program served 11,580 individuals, or 18 percent of the county’s population of around 63,132.
— During the same period, 2000-2013, the number of county households using the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program drew from 808 to 2,445.
— The Medicaid Assistance Program grew from serving 5,542 individuals in 2000 to 12,202 in 2013. That 2013 figure translates into 19 percent of the county’s population.
— For 2014, 11.6 percent of the county’s households, 21,135, are below the poverty level.
— For 2014, 14 percent of the county’s households earn $15,000 or less while 27 percent earn $25,000 or less.
One service that ended with the demise of Starting Points was the only homeless shelter in Chippewa County, Harmony House in Chippewa Falls.
Winter said it cost Starting Points $120,000 to $130,000 a year to run the shelter. “There is no state, county, federal funds to support that operation,” Winter said. “That model is very difficult to sustain.”
The Federal government went away from giving financial support for homeless shelter.
“A permanent shelter is a tough one. Not just purchasing it. But maintaining it,” said Ryan M. Graham, case manager for the Beacon House, part of the Eau Claire Interfaith Hospitality Network.
Winter suggested looking at what Dunn County did, which was to buy a fourplex apartment where homeless families can stay. A case manager then works with the families to find them a longer-term solution.
People attending the meeting asked whether churches could take in homeless families for a short time, or whether local motels would be interested in donating a room or two where the homeless could stay.
Graham, who said his agency is helping two Chippewa County families and have six more on a waiting list, said Beacon House years ago used a model where churches would house the homeless. There were some problems with that, including running afoul of fire codes, he said.
“It worked well for families. Would it work well for individuals?” he asked.
As for motels donating rooms, “I think it’s a possibility,” said Greg Miserk, CDC’s executive director. But he added his agency, which has been in Eau Claire for decades but came to Chippewa County only after Starting Points ended, first needs to build trust in the community that it will be a good partner.
One man, who did not identified himself, proposed holding a county-wide referendum where, if passed, each household would pay $10 to help the homeless. It would be better to start it that way rather than the painful way of piecing together agencies to provide the help, he said.
Another suggestion was made for the homeless to use the empty buildings on the grounds of the Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled in Chippewa Falls.
But that’s not going to work, said Kurt Clausing, who operated Barnabus Table with his wife, Terri Clausing. The couple relies on donations and volunteers to serve meals to the homeless Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at the Barnabas Christian Coffee House, 19 W. Spring St.
Kurt Clausing said most of the buildings at the Northern Center are mothballed. “Those buildings are in such bad shape, it would (cost) hundreds of thousands to fix up,” he said.
Terri Clausing said there was a need for a warming shelter for the homeless. Other participants identified needs including after-hours assistance and transportation help.
Winter encouraged people to attend the “Hunger and Homelessness Summit” being held by U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau) on Tuesday, Dec. 16 at the WITC Conference Tner, 1019 South Knowles Ave. in New Richmond. That summit, the second one being held by Duffy, will bring together non-profit groups, religious organizations and government agencies.
It’s going to take the work of local communities to make a difference in the problem, said Robyn Thibado, associate director of WestCAP, which took over some of Starting Points duties.
“We are not going to end homelessness where no one will ever be homeless again,” she said.
But she said the groups need to concentrate on having systems in place so when a person becomes homeless it is a one-time experience and they can find affordable housing.