Veterans illustrate the problem of homelessness in La Crosse

It’s a shameful feeling you might get when you read the story of Brian Johnson and his friends, who are surrounded by old bikes in the woods along the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wis.

They’re his ticket out of there, he hopes. It’s a tent city of homeless people and Johnson fixes up old bikes.

“I’m getting ready to move,” the 39-year-old Johnson told a reporter for the La Crosse Tribune yesterday. “The end game is to be able to give a kid a bike.”

Johnson is a Marine. A homeless veteran. And La Crosse’s experience in trying to end homelessness is a picture of how veterans have ended up in the woods of La Crosse.

The military will take the poor and undereducated. The nation’s economy won’t touch them.

The La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness started last year with a goal to get people out of the woods and into some sort of shelter. Of those who were sheltered, 16 were military veterans.

They missed Johnson.

Johnson, a native of Charleston, S.C., who has lived in La Crosse since 2012 and has worked a few jobs beyond his outdoor bike shop, said repairing the cycles “taps into my passion.” He attributes his knack for repairing bikes to watching a neighbor work on his bikes when Johnson was a boy — and then teaching him, insisting that he should be able to do it on his own.

Johnson seems more inclined to cooperate in this phase of the collaborative’s push to bring homelessness in the area to functional zero than he did last fall, saying that he is hoping to pull together enough money to obtain a storage unit for his projects and tools before May 31.

He has a lead on a job at an organic farm, he told Neighborhood Resource Officers Alex Burg and Joel Miller, who accompanied a reporter and photographer through the encampment Thursday.

“I believe in working hard and playing hard,” Johnson said. “I’m a guy — I like to get my hands dirty. I like to work from a tent. The only thing you lose is your luxuries.”

A couple of cops are doing their part. They check on the homeless encampment regularly, and invite them to picnics and arehoping to convince the neighborhood that they’re better off with shelter.

They better hurry.

The city is hoping to close the encampment by the end of the month.