Lack of affordable housing in Eau Claire leads to poverty and sometimes homelessness

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Eric Best, 53, pictured inside Positive Avenues on April 4, became homeless a year ago. Although he struggles with social anxiety disorder that often leaves him feeling panicked and sick to his stomach at the thought of interacting with others, Best is trying to get off the streets. © 2018 Samantha West

His life had become a big waiting game.

After losing his job, Eric Best waited for his life to somehow turn around on its own. He couldn’t deal.

Best, 53, hid inside his bedroom, losing himself to difficulties with social anxiety disorder that kept him from interacting with hardly anyone for days at a time. Consequently, his rent piled up for a year.

Although the rent for the apartment had been affordable, that changed when he lost his job at E-Bay. Nothing was affordable anymore — not even the the apartment he described as a “dump” up on Mt. Washington Avenue he’d called home for several years.

He didn’t know where or who to turn to. His case worker would suggest resources to reach out to, but every time fear overtook Best when he tried to do what she suggested.

When he lost that apartment, Best continued to wait to confront anyone about his newfound issue — he had become homeless. He spent his nights at Sojourner House, that is, if they had an open bed. Otherwise, the streets became his nightly resting place.

He continued to wait. And wait, and wait, drowning in crippling social anxiety that came with just the thought of reaching out to others for help.

“I said to somebody back then that if I was still there after 90 days to please shoot me,” Best said while perched at a table at Positive Avenues, a daytime resource center for those struggling with homelessness and mental health issues in Eau Claire. “I said that repeatedly, and now it’s been a year.”

Best is not alone in struggling to pay for housing in Eau Claire. According to the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, 62 percent of residents own a home and 38 percent rent. Of those in the county who rent one in two is cost-burdened, or paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent alone, while one in five is extremely cost burdened, or paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Of the 62 percent who own their home, one in five is cost-burdened and one in 14 is extremely cost burdened.

Some, like Best, end up without a home of their own. Because of the nature of homelessness in Eau Claire — folks live on the outskirts of society, under the radar and sometimes no one knows where they’re living — it’s difficult to know how many there are, City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said.

When all homeless shelters in the region are at or above capacity — which they nearly always are — the number of homeless in shelters sits at about 100 or more, plus dozens who live on the streets and hundreds of others who couch surf and bounce from place to place.

Although awareness of Eau Claire’s homeless population has grown over the last decade, Geise said few seem to be aware of a large issue contributing to the growing number of homeless: the lack of affordable housing.

But the issue of affordable housing is not just a problem for those who are homeless. The issue also affects those part of the working to middle class who are housed and employed, but continuously struggle to make ends meet.

According to data from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, one in seven residents in Eau Claire County lives below the federal poverty level. Although the mean household income in Eau Claire — $50,538 —  nears national statistics, according to the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Report, 47 percent of households in the county are ALICE or in poverty. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the national mean household income is $57,617 as of 2016.

Issues like high rent, a lack of personal money and federal funding to keep up with those high costs, poor housing conditions and societal stigma contribute to the lack of affordable housing in Eau Claire.

Reasonable to unaffordable

When Dani Claesges began work as the Eau Claire school district homeless program coordinator 11 years ago, the first homeless family with children in the school district that she assisted were renting a three-bedroom apartment for $400 a month. Complaints about the high cost of rent were virtually nonexistent.

“Nobody used to talk about high rent here in Eau Claire,” Claesges said. “Back then, rent was really reasonable … Now I’m hearing that complaint all the time.”

Currently, the average rent in Eau Claire is nearly $800, according to city and regional statistics. Three-bedroom units rent around $1,000 — even if the property is older and not in great condition.

As housing costs have climbed over the last few years, Claesges said she’s noticed her clients’ incomes have not done the same.

But it’s not just an issue of money in the difficulty of finding housing in Eau Claire — the city suffers from an overall housing shortage. Statistics from the city show that only 3 percent of apartments in the city are vacant at any given time.

This low rate means landlords have many people at once looking to them for housing. Not only can they then charge more money for the properties they own, but they can become hyper-selective of who they rent to.

This often leaves people with a bad credit history, a past eviction, a criminal record or not enough money to their name without anywhere to turn.

A fixed income

Shirley Parr belongs to the latter group — but not because she hasn’t worked hard or hasn’t been frugal.

The daughter of farmers, Parr said she was raised to be as thrifty as possible. But the 75-year-old Eau Claire resident has realized there is really no such thing when it comes to housing in town.

After her divorce, Parr moved from the Mondovi area to Eau Claire about a decade ago. Because she hadn’t worked for the last 15 years while she was raising her children, she found herself with no income and no way of earning Social Security benefits.

“I never regretted that time with my kids,” Parr said. “Until I realized I had no social security and no means of supporting myself (after the divorce).”

Parr got a job in Eau Claire in order to eventually receive Social Security and retire, but soon lost it.

Soon after, Parr moved to Appleton in order to be closer to her son who lived there at the time. She began working at Walmart, and remembers paying about $435 in rent for apartment that she recalls was “a beautiful place.”

A few years ago she moved back to Eau Claire after retiring from her full-time job at Walmart. She found home at Grace Congress Apartments at 520 Congress St. at a somewhat affordable price — though more expensive than what she was paying in Appleton — and convenient location, being a short walk from Phoenix Park.

“I came to Eau Claire and it was just a big shock,” Parr said of the cost of living.

But then, her landlord kicked her out a month after resigning her lease to make “improvements.” The rent then increased from $465 per month to $595. Parr wasn’t sure why, but had no power to argue with her landlords.

“It’s not like it (the apartment) was getting any bigger,” she joked.

She was back at square one and began searching for a new apartment. Parr said the search became even more difficult since her last time searching for a residence.

“I could find nothing I could afford,” Parr said.

In order to find and afford her current apartment, Parr reached out to the city’s Housing Authority, which is a subsidized housing program funded U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“I never wanted that,” Parr said of having to ask for government assistance in order to afford housing. “I think people don’t even realize, the older generation was a very proud generation, but now it’s getting to that you have to. What else are you going to do?”

Poor housing conditions

Not only is the high cost of living an issue for residents of Eau Claire, but so are the poor conditions that landlords often are able to get away with because of the housing shortage.

About one in six homes in Eau Claire County have “severe housing problems,” according to housing data from the health department. These issues include overcrowding, high housing costs or lack of kitchen or plumbing facilities. Of 72 counties across Wisconsin, Eau Claire County ranks 51st for severe housing problems.

Though he currently owns his own home, Leigh Carey of Eau Claire became homeless for three weeks after the house he was renting got condemned because the property needed a new water heater.

After two recent knee replacements and other physical impairments, Carey was unable to handle working 20 hours a week at his part-time job at Gordy’s. When he got laid off this summer, he took some time off because working was so painful, mostly relying on monthly disability payments to get by.

Because that federal assistance is not enough to live on entirely, Carey said he’s currently looking for a job.

“But at the age of 65, that’s difficult,” Carey said of his efforts to gain employment.

Like Parr, Carey received assistance from the Eau Claire Housing Authority — but in the form of a loan — to purchase his current home. He also received monetary assistance from the program to pay for a few heating bills this winter, he said.

“I wouldn’t have been able to make it,” Carey said. “But I’m still barely making it.”

From his experience living in Sojourner House, Carey said there’s a lot of work to do on the part of the homeless and city and county officials. Although Carey will admit that some take advantage of federally-funded programs and places to live like Sojourner House or places to stay warm during cold winter days like Positive Avenues, that’s a small majority, he said.

“There needs to be more help for them,” Carey said of the homeless, who he said too often spend any money they get on drugs and lack motivation to change their lifestyles.

Positive Avenues

Larry Coleman knows that reality all too well.

Larry Coleman poses for a photo inside Positive Avenues on April 4. He has volunteered at there for the past nine years. © 2018 Samantha West

Over the last nine years he’s served as a volunteer at Positive Avenues, Coleman said he’s seen a great deal — folks selling just about anything to have a place to stay for the night, for drugs, for basic necessities.

While he takes care of various chores around the facility, like cleaning and cooking lunch for visitors every Friday, Coleman sees many people in various states come and go. He often stands at his counter chatting with anyone around him.

“I hang out with everybody. They all know me,” Coleman said. “They tell me stories — where they’ve been and what they’re going through now. … I’ve been doing this for free for nine years, and I enjoy doing it.”

Positive Avenues is a place for those who are homeless or struggling with another mental illness to spend their day and get help from caseworkers who are available onsite. © 2018 Samantha West

But that’s not to say it’s easy supervising the behavior within Positive Avenues. He sees folks under the influence of drugs and alcohol — out of control and doing nothing with their lives and not seeming to care.

“They try to look away,” Coleman said, “but if I look them in the eyes, I know. I know what they’re doing. I’ve been here too long to not know.”

Coleman himself struggles to make rent. Spending most of his time volunteering and living solely on disability, it’s difficult to make ends meet.

“It’s too expensive (housing),” Coleman said. “And it goes up every year.”

Larry Coleman serves his weekly Friday meal on April 16. Those who are homeless or struggling with other mental health issues are welcome to come and go from Positive Avenues on weekdays. © 2018 Samantha West

Getting back on track

After a year of homelessness, Eric Best said he finally feels as if he’s on the right track to getting back on his feet. At least, he hopes so.

He came to Wisconsin four years ago, first moving to Shell Lake, then Rice Lake and eventually to Eau Claire, where he began working for E-Bay. He’d spent the years before living in Florida near his sister and working in real estate. He grew up in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts.

Best has now had no income for the past two years. Currently, Best is applying for Social Security and a few low-income housing programs.

“I can barely bring myself to fill out a job application, never mind attend a job interview,” Best said, noting his social anxiety disorder kept him from admitting he needed help and seeking it out.

Best said his lack of awareness and knowledge of what programs were available to him also kept him from getting out of his situation sooner.

“How can they help me with low income housing when I have no income? If i knew what was available back then, it’s not like I wanted to spend time in a shelter,” Best said.

He attends therapy to help his social anxiety more bearable. It’s gotten better, Best said, but that’s not to say there aren’t still bad days.

“I’m working on reducing my anxieties,” Best said, “but, I mean, being homeless is a big anxiety right there.”

Eric Best reads his book inside Positive Avenues. He spends most of his days reading, either inside Positive Avenues or at Owen Park, he said. © 2018 Samantha West

For now, Best continues to spend his nights at Sojourner or on the streets, and his days reading either inside Positive Avenues or outside at Owen Park if the weather allows. Sometimes, he can bring himself to chat with Coleman or his caseworker.

“It’s a slow process,” Best said. “And it’s really just become a waiting game at this point.”

Where do we go from here?

As he’s watched Eau Claire develop and thrive with new businesses starting and new apartment buildings springing up downtown over the last few years, Paul Savides can’t help but think of those being left behind — those in poverty and those without homes.

“I hate to say that it’s because of the development of downtown, but I know that it’s replaced a lot of low-income housing,” said Savides, president of JONAH, a grassroots organization composed of local faith communities all aiming to tackle various social justice issues like homelessness and poverty. “It wasn’t great housing, but it was affordable.”

Savides isn’t alone — with all the communitywide and national talk of the Eau Claire’s growth, Dani Claesges wonders the same.

“We’re moving as a community into this better look — but it is just a look for many of our community members,” Claesges said. “They are definitely still struggling and will continue to struggle if the cost of living around here and our housing costs stay the same.”

Since Savides helped start JONAH, he said he has seen awareness of Eau Claire’s issues with poverty and homelessness grow. Still, the issues only seem to become greater.

“I think over the last 10 years, that help that people have gotten has kind of dried up,” Savides said. “Funding has been decreasing over the years, and that’s caused the problem to get worse. Federal funding and state grant money is just not as available.”

Although, first and foremost, Savides said Eau Claire simply needs more housing, and more of it needs to be low-income housing, there also needs to be more assistance in getting out of homelessness and the awareness of the issue communitywide needs to continue to improve.

Past expanding housing, Claesges said taking more preventative measures to fight homelessness is less expensive in the long run.

But more importantly, she said that could prevent the trauma that accompanies the situation.

“Those kids and those adults are going through traumatic experiences when they become homeless,” Claesges said. “It is a very hard, worrisome, difficult, full-of-anxiety and fearful experience, and if you can avoid that for a child or a parent who is watching their kids and themselves experience homelessness — if you can afford that for human beings, I put that above money, 100 percent.”

Changing mindsets

But with those changes comes an even more difficult task, Savides said — community involvement.

When Best thinks of how long he’s gone homeless without help, he becomes frustrated with those around him who don’t seem to care.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of Eau Claire doesn’t give a damn about the homeless,” Best said. “They don’t want to see us, but they don’t want to house us either.”

Savides said he sees many people who, when they come in contact with homeless individuals at places like the L.E. Phillips Memorial Library in downtown Eau Claire, often divert their eyes and pretend the person is not there. This, he said, needs to change.

“I tell people to at least tell them hi, to make eye contact with them and treat them like a human being,” Savides said. “Because they are.”

In the future, Savides hopes JONAH can help encourage broader community involvement, by bringing people from all walks of life in the community together to talk about issues — including those directly impacted.

“I grew up a privileged life, you know? I grew up middle class, I’m white, I’m male. I got all the advantages of our culture,” Savides said. “So how am I supposed to understand what it’s like to come out of jail as an African-American woman or somebody else? How am I supposed to get that? I need to hear their stories so I can better understand, and I think we all need to talk about that more.”

But, overall, Savides has hope for the future.

“I think we can solve it if we decide we want to live in a community where we truly help each other out.”

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram Reporter Julian Emerson contributed to the reporting for this story.