As the nights get longer and colder, the rush is on to get a homeless shelter going in Eau Claire.
Thursday, as a group met to talk about the options, we toured downtown Eau Claire with two homeless men to talk about the realities of life on the streets.
For most of us, it's a path less taken, along the Chippewa River in downtown Eau Claire. But, for the city's homeless it's a dirt trail leading to their doorsteps.
"I’m pretty worried this year that I’m going to face another winter out there and I’m 54 years old. It's really rough on me," says Kenneth Minto.
After a rough divorce, Minto says he became homeless four years ago.
“The job market out there is just terrible. When you lose everything you get pretty devastated. It's a number of things; alcoholism was a factor,” Minto says.
Minto’s friend Silas Quagon has been homeless for three years; he’s been homeless on and off for almost two decades.
"If I’m working I’ll get an apartment, but if I’m not then it's back outside because you can't pay the bills," Quagon says.
Minto and Quagon are two of Eau Claire's growing homeless population. Both are also a part of the Homeless Partnership Network, a group consisting of those who serve the homeless and the homeless themselves.
"Who is falling through the cracks? Who has the least amount of services? And everyone agreed—single men," Quagon says.
Last winter, the Warming Center opened at Valleybrook Church on Barstow St. But, because it's not zoned as a hotel, it's illegal for people to sleep through the cold nights. It’s also only open from November 1 to April 1.
"There really needs to be some place where at the very least they can sleep. Eventually we would love to get to a point where we can do case management, where we help with job search, where we can help with skills, a whole variety of things, but at the very least we want a place where people can get off the street during inclement weather and sleep,” says Barbara Solsaa with Lutheran Social Services and a member of the Homeless Partnership Network.
For the group, the single biggest issue is finding a building and getting zoning approved. One of the places discussed Thursday was a building on the property of Sacred Heart Church, but Catholic Charities says there are a lot of approvals that would have to happen first and it’s unlikely it could happen by this winter.
"We used to get old carpet scraps and make bedding down here amongst the rocks to get out of the wind," Minto says from underneath the Lake Street bridge.
Minto says a shelter would give him hope through the winter for a better economy come spring and one day a home of his own.
"That's what I want most of all, that's what I want most of all is to have a life again," Minto says.
Silas says he would stay outside, leaving the shelter for those more in need.
The Homeless Partnership Network is meeting again on Tuesday, September 21 at 2 p.m. at the Wellness Shack at 515 South Barstow St. Everyone is invited.
For more information on how you can help the homeless ahead of winter, call Sue Howe, program supervisor for Positive Avenues in Eau Claire at (715) 835-3816.
Positive Avenues is a drop-in mental health center where both Quagon and Minto volunteer.