Winter cold affects homeless population in Eau Claire

Local homeless shelters at capacity as the winter rages on.

More stories from Luke Alex


The Sojourner House is a homeless shelter in downtown Eau Claire located at 1031 W. Clairemont Ave. ©LukeAlex2021

It’s sometime after midnight when Julian Emerson approaches a couple of the pitched tents in the distance.

This wouldn’t be an abnormal occurrence if Emerson was approaching the tents in one of Eau Claire’s local campsite such as Eagle Ridge or O’Neil Creek campgrounds. But Emerson isn’t walking on a campsite. He’s walking in the downtown business district of Eau Claire in the middle of January when the temperature has just dropped below -14 degrees.

This incident happened in 2013, since then, Eau Claire has seen more and more homeless people each year on their streets.

“The problem of homelessness in Eau Claire isn’t going away,” Emerson said. “In fact, it’s getting much worse.”

This year, homelessness in the city of Eau Claire is the worst it has ever been. According to a 2019 report by the Eau Claire School District, one out of every 30 children in the district experienced one night of homelessness each year.

“There’s no clear or correct data for what the number actually is in Eau Claire, but I would guess that it’s in the thousands,” said Samantha Berg, the director of development at Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley.

Emerson-a local journalist doing freelance work in Eau Claire- was one of many Eau Claire residents that saw the homeless population growing.

That year it started becoming evident that it was going to be a historically cold and snowy winter,” Emerson said. “So I started wondering ‘Are there really people out on the streets living in this? How do they survive?’.”

The problem of homelessness problem gets more complicated when the Covid-19 pandemic is thrown into the mix, which has forced shelters to cut down their max capacity, causing waiting lists to become even longer, Berg said.

“As soon as a family moves out, we over that room really fast and we get another family within the next day or two in,” Berg said.”

The problem of homelessness in Eau Claire and the rest of the Midwest is amplified during the cold months of the winter when the shelter is sometimes necessary for survival,

“From a meteorologist standpoint, our job is to let people know when the weather gets to a dangerous point,” Justin Esterly, a meteorologist for WQOW News18. “And we have definitely had dangerous temperatures in terms of being outside.”

An unusually warm December and January was followed by a record-breaking February that hit dangerously low temperatures, Esterly said.

“We had a stretch that was 11 days in a row with a wind chill advisory and we had 138 hours of subzero temperatures,” Esterly said. “That wasn’t the record for most consecutive hours but it was close to it.”

At below-freezing temperatures, frostbite and hyperthermia can set in quick if you are outside with any part of your body exposed, Esterly said. This is especially dangerous for the vast majority of homeless individuals who are living outdoors with sometimes minimal clothing.

“When you get temperatures down to 25 below—where our temperature has been—that is when frostbite, even without any wind, can set in in less than 30 minutes,” Esterly said. “For a homeless person that doesn’t have a shelter or any heat sources or a way of covering all that skin, it becomes life-threatening.”

With all the struggles that homeless people face with lack of shelter, cold, and hunger, one of the main things that they struggle with is an addiction to drugs said Chris Hedlund, the program director at Hope Gospel Mission.

“Some people say that is if someone is homeless and you provide them a house, you solved the problem, but you’ve only solved the problem by definition Hedlund said. “That’s a band-aid on the real problem.”

One of the main issues with homelessness is that the majority of the individuals living on the street struggle with moderate to severe mental disorders, Hedlund said. Severe schizophrenia and paranoia sometimes cause homeless individuals to stay homeless because they are scared the people trying to help them actually want to hurt them.

Hope Gospel mission is really a long-term program where stay for a year and a half,” Hedlund said. “We have a counseling team and mentors, we get them connected to healthy social networks, they can stay surrounded by resources helping build their foundation from the ground up.

The root concern of homelessness in Eau Claire isn’t necessarily the fact that there isn’t enough shelter or food for them, Hedlund said. One of the main difficulties is that there aren’t enough workers and volunteers to manage the number of people the shelters are dealing with.

“We are incredibly short on both volunteers and employees right now,” Hedlund said. “We are struggling to fill almost every position, and it’s getting to the point where we may have to limit intake and have a longer waiting list because we don’t have enough staff.”

Hope Gospel Mission, Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, and Sojourner House are all currently accepting volunteers of all ages.