EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) – More than a dozen volunteers and area shelters want to find out the state of homelessness in Eau Claire County. The Eau Claire Continuum of Care (CoC) is conducting its bi-annual homeless count throughout the day on Wednesday.
Individuals and families will be counted at a barbecue dinner at the Community Table as part of the point in time survey. At midnight, volunteers will go out into the county and track down homeless individuals, giving them resource ideas to turn to and collecting data. The last count was done in January 2013, finding 82 people and 31 families homeless.
Kristen Hoel said she never imagined she’d be among the individuals being counted as homeless.
“I never thought I would be homeless. I have two degrees, undergraduate and a law school degree,” said Hoel.
The former attorney said the situation was out of her control.
“I got very sick with an illness called Steven Johnson’s syndrome and I had to move from Los Angeles where I was practicing law to Rochester, Minnesota Mayo Clinic to be treated for it,” said the now 47-year-old.
She said the medical bills went through the roof at nearly $250,000 dollar, having her tap into her 401k and savings and eventually moving back to Cornell, Wisconsin where she grew up.
“Because of the way state bars work, I wasn't a member of the Wisconsin state bar and I would have had to take the bar exam,” she said. “For a long time I wasn't working.”
Hoel called is a “downward spiral” that’s never ending. While unable to practice law in the state, she was hired on as an adjunct professor at the Chippewa Valley Technical College but when funding was limited, her position was cut, she said.
“Being homeless is a fulltime job plus. I mean you have to figure out what am I going to do today, where am I going to go, where am I going to eat. You don’t' rarely have time to do anything else. And it is true that it drags on you after several months. You almost kind of give up,” she said.
Hoel said she's glad she can rely on resources like the Sojourner House, the Beacon House and the Community Table as well as local food pantries to support her.
Organizers of the point in time count said they want to help people like Hoel get back on their feet.
“The idea is to try and take a snapshot of what’s going on within our community and within our state and within our country regarding the numbers of homeless individuals and families that are out there - and that helps us make decisions about funding and what services to provide,” said Kelly Christianson, executive director of Eau Claire Interfaith Hospitality Network.
She said the survey helps the state as well as the federal government decide where resources and funding will go. That’s why she said it’s important to count every individual who is homeless in the community throughout Eau Claire County.
“I can tell you that in the 11 years that I’ve been here, I’d say the last five to six years, family homeless is on the rise. It’s not going down by any means. We weren't always full when I started, its full now and have been for the last five to six years,” said Christianson.
She said there are cases of families and kids sleeping in cars as well as tents in campgrounds. Some kids, she said, are found going to school and catching a bus from the campground to get there.
For Hoel, find a job and housing is the biggest problem.
“You think you can get out of it, but all of sudden when you apply for a job, oh you got this criminal record and I’m like, yeah I got that criminal record because I was loitering, when I was actually just sleeping because I had no other place to sleep,” said Hoel. “If you don’t get into Sojourner House by 9:00, you have to find a different place to sleep and it seems like no matter where you sleep outdoors, the police will find you and they will fine you. And all of sudden you have this criminal history. That’s really a huge hurdle to try and get over.”
Hoel said she hopes resources throughout Eau Claire County can congregate and work together.
“Make sure they’re just not sending like a person from point a to point B to point C and getting the same information,” said Hoel.
Community volunteers and representatives from Western Dairyland Community Action Agency, Bolton Refuge House, Eau Claire Interfaith Hospitality Network, and Sojourner House will begin canvassing the city of Eau Claire around 12 a.m. They will be looking for individuals who are experiencing homelessness, providing outreach, and obtaining information necessary for the count.