B.C. Kowalski/The City Pages
Officer Eric Lemirand is the officer working with Wausau’s homeless population.
Officer Eric Lemirand walked into the police station on the city’s near east side on a Friday afternoon on the phone. He’s speaking with someone who is working their way out of homelessness, and he’s late for his appointment with me.
It’s totally understandable. A big part of his day is spent working with Wausau’s homeless population, and that often means he is constantly taking and returning calls. “I am busier doing this than I was on patrol taking calls,” Lemirand tells me as we ride in his squad car, a black SUV with Police written across the side, down Scott Street.
The job is 8-4, Monday through Friday, not typical hours for a police officer. Lemirand spent 12 years on the job as a patrol officer. Before that, he worked in the airline industry as an in-flight manager. He moved from Minneapolis to Wausau to become an officer.
And his parents were Salvation Army pastors here in Wausau for many years. Lemirand until recently served on its board.
He’d originally thought about filling in on the Crisis Assessment Response Team, often referred to simply as CART, he tells me. But his superior officers had other ideas. They were developing an officer position that would exclusively work with the homeless population. They thought Lemirand would be perfect. He thought so too. “The command staff know I’m a pretty good salesperson, and pretty persistent in wanting to solve problems for people,” Lemirand tells me.
As we will see, that salesmanship — the ability to push while being patient — comes in handy with this job.
That the Wausau Police Department has an officer working with the homeless is useful as Wausau as a whole is working harder than ever to address its homeless population. It started as a point of criticism: Wausau PD introduced an ordinance to make it illegal to loiter in the city’s parking garages, which many saw as criminalizing homelessness. It turned into a larger community effort led by the PD to look into how to better address the homeless population. The Community Partners Campus is working on building a non-profit center that puts services for vulnerable populations including the homeless into one large center, that’s centrally located and accessible by bus. And Wausau PD partnered with North Central Health Care to buy a house to start transitioning people out of homelessness.
They also, rather quietly, hired Lemirand to work with homeless folks in the community. It’s gone almost entirely under the radar.
But the PD was eager to have a reporter ride along for a couple of hours, when I asked. So in the middle of December I did just that.
A house, for starters
B.C. Kowalski/The City Pages
Officer Lemirand speaks with a homeless individual at the gazebo by the Wisconsin River.
Officer Lemirand and I walk up to the house on McClellan Street, just east of downtown. The house, he explains, is about to have its very first resident, Michael. Michael had just moved in that very day, he says.
Lemirand opens an Amazon box, pulling out an ashtray to place outside the building. There’s no typical day for Lemirand; it all depends on the people he works with, and what they need. He once drove a homeless individual to Eau Claire to help him out.
Calling Lemirand a liaison is a good explanation. Lemirand works with Monica Mynsberge of North Central Health Care, who is an important part of the program, he explains. He spends a lot of time calling various agencies, building relationships so that when a homeless person needs something, he can get them connected. He aims to be a resource for the local homeless population in their quest to regain housing.
There’s a spectrum of homeless folks. They range from those who fell on a bit of short-term bad luck, to those with severe mental health and alcohol or other substance abuse problems; and everything in between. Already, since Lemirand started as the homeless liaison officer, there have been successes and failures. The failures surprise him, and he’s had to learn to understand them. “If someone stood before me and said I have all this taken care of so you don’t have to worry about it, I just need your buy in, I would say ‘sweet,’” Lemirand says. But it’s often not that easy, depending on how long someone has been homeless, and their level of trust in institutions.
Michael, a 27-year-old man who moved to Wausau from Marshfield, is thankfully on the end of the spectrum where success comes easiest. He was working at a grocery store in Marshfield and living with a friend, he explained to me inside the new transition house. His friend “did something stupid” and lost their place of residence. His friend had somewhere to go. He did not.
He actually started walking to Wausau, because at least Wausau had shelters for homeless individuals, when a Spencer officer stopped him. He bought him food and told him to wait until his shift was over, Michael told me. The officer then drove him to Wausau.
He stayed at the Catholic Charities Warming Center, currently at the YWCA building, when Lemirand and Mynsberge found him. Now he’s the first resident of the new transition house. Thanks to going through the Joseph Project, led by Pastor Yauo Yang, he now has a job too.
He has his own room as other residents of the house will, and he will leave with a bed. Verlo is providing several mattresses to start and will offer the PD discounts on the rest they buy. They want residents to leave with their own mattress to start their new life, Lemirand explains.
Michael is a good example of a success story that didn’t take a lot of work, but the resources had to be there and someone still had to be there to help. Digging himself out from homelessness might have been a tough challenge but with a little bit of help, he is on the right track. He had as few barriers to getting out of his situation as could be, Lemirand explains. “Once we get him some income he won’t have a problem finding an apartment,” Lemirand says.
After the transition house we head over to the gazebo along the Wisconsin River. It’s probably no secret to many that it has become a congregating spot for many of Wausau’s homeless population. It’s where Lemirand spends a lot of time. A bridge where many homeless sleep is nearby the gazebo. We pass someone who waves. Lemirand explains it is someone who isn’t homeless but was close to it, that they now help.
“If you’re a family and want to enjoy the gazebo, you would take one look at it and say, yeah nope,” Lemirand says. “Not because they’re bad people. I want to get the gazebo cleaned up.”
We pull up under the bridge in the squad car, and those at the gazebo don’t seem particularly alarmed that a uniformed officer has shown up. A woman sitting at the gazebo tells Lemirand that she is bartering, but then won’t say what for, and later says it was all a joke.
Lemirand knows her name, but we won’t repeat it here. He’s spoken to her before, but today they have a long conversation. I struggle to hear much of what she says, and struggle again when trying to listen to my recording. But I get enough. Lemirand spends about 20 minutes trying to talk to her about helping her, and she seems resistant. He later tells me that’s very typical. Although he, Mynsberge and others try to remove as many barriers as they can, many aren’t exactly chomping at the bit. We talk about why that is afterward.
“She says ‘well, I want to be out here,” but I don’t believe that for a minute,” Lemirand says. She’s used to surviving. Because she’s lived like that for a long time, survival has become her purpose. But Lemirand says the hope is to get her and others with a similar mindset to reach for something beyond mere survival. At one point I hear her say “when I’m ready.”
Lemirand’s approach is both patient and persistent, but he does explain there will come a time when they need to remove everyone from the gazebo, and clean the walls of writing. “Which, by the way, can you guys stop writing on the walls?” he says at one point.
“Then people need to stop dying,” she responds, a stark reminder that signifies the dangers of being homeless. It’s why Lemirand is out here in the first place. It’s what other programs are aiming to fix. But they need to take the first step, and that involves building trust with those trying to help.
Making a difference
B.C. Kowalski/The City Pages
Officer Lemirand answers an email from his squad.
Catholic Charities Director Tracy Reiger doesn’t mince words when I ask about Officer Lemirand and the work he’s doing. The word “gamechanger” comes up multiple times throughout the day. Reiger’s only complaint is that she can’t clone him five to seven times. “I told Chief Bliven that this is exactly what this community needs,” Reiger says. “It’s boots on the ground, speaking with people, helping with resources. He and Mynsberge have been instrumental in getting help for folks.”
The program fills a really important gap in the community, she says. At the warming center, they only get a short window to work with clients, and usually that time is spent on helping homeless individuals with really basic needs. There just isn’t a window to help people they way Lemirand and Mynsberge can.
The program is a few months old but is already making an impact, they explain. Lemirand cites six different people he and Mynsberge already have helped transition out of homelessness. For some, it was merely a matter of driving them to their families in other cities, including up north or as far south as Milwaukee. For one man, he had a job but his criminal record made it hard to get an apartment – a quick call from Lemirand to apartment owners he has a relationship with was all it took to get him a place. Other times, it’s spending hours inside his squad as he connects someone to resources to get them on the path out of homelessness.
“All they have to do, their effort is say ‘Eric, todays’ the day,’ and I say, ‘All right, let’s go,’” Lemirand says.
Getting that “todays’ the day” is not easy, as illustrated by the conversation I witness Eric have with one homeless individual. Reiger says that’s pretty common. There are elements of trust and changing one’s thinking from survival to wanting something more. Lemirand tells me he’s sure no one wants to live like this, pointing to the bridge, but often it’s surprisingly difficult to convince someone to take the next steps.
It’s easier when someone has only been homeless for a short period of time, Reiger says. Michael’s story is a great example
But when they are ready, Lemirand says there is complete buy-in on the part of the PD. Anything he needs to do to help someone in homelessness, he has the leeway to get it done, whether it’s driving someone across the state or spending hours helping them connect with resources.
Lemirand tells me as I leave his squad at the police headquarters that he doesn’t want readers to focus on him. It’s a PD effort for which he is the face, and he wants people to think “Wow, Wausau PD is really doing something great here.” The PD and NCHC, of course.
The program is the PD’s creation, but Lemirand is uniquely suited to fill the role. Lemirand in his conversations City Pages observed demonstrated a balance that’s difficult for many people to find, that’s absolutely necessary to work with the homeless population: the right mixture of patience and persistence. Were he too hard, none of the homeless individuals would speak to him; but if he were too easy going, they’d largely ignore him and he would be ineffective.
Lemirand’s personality and background lend themselves perfectly to the job, and it’s starting to pay off, especially as the community adds more resources around homelessness, such as the McClellan Street transition house. Lemirand, Mynsberge and others involved in addressing homelessness are part of filling the missing link.