Lafayette charities fear wave of need as thousands apply for unemployment related to coronavirus

Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: Charities that help Acadiana’s financially vulnerable see mounting unemployment claims and worry about a crash of housing instability coming. Programs typically strained in normal circumstances are poised to be slammed from two sides, as job losses surge people into unprecedented vulnerability and contributions dry up. 

Share the Light has already run out of money for the month. Operated by Catholic Charities of Acadiana, the program takes small donations from LUS customers and distributes them to people in dire financial circumstances. It’s not atypical for Share the Light to exhaust its monthly giving, Catholic Charities’ Kim Boudreaux said in an interview early Friday, but she warned the need will skyrocket as the bottom drops out for many families for the first time. Last year, Share the Light generated about $37,000 for Lafayette residents in need. 

“If we had a million dollars it wouldn’t be enough in this situation,” Boudreaux said. Catholic Charities runs a variety of similar programs, including Slemco’s Lights On, and distributes alms from the Diocese of Lafayette. Those and other programs administered by Catholic Charities still have money available for distribution with some flexibility. But she expects the need to balloon as unemployment rises. 

Acadiana’s weekly unemployment claims topped 7,000 as coronavirus hit in mid-March. Earlier weekly claims hovered just about 1,000 at the beginning of March, according to data shared at a press briefing by LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle. More than 6.6 million have been filed nationwide, doubling last week’s claims, the highest ever on record. 

“We focus on households that have an unexpected loss or expense in their household,” Boudreaux says. “We’ve always made our decisions based on somebody’s circumstances.” Now, it appears many, many more people will fit those criteria, she says. 

Charities have already had to adapt to the unique challenges of a pandemic. Catholic Charities has lost availability in its homeless shelters to make space for social distancing. Food banks have had to devise strategies to store and distribute food safely without spreading the virus. Schools were pressed into duty as crisis-food centers until volunteers and workers became worried about their own health.

The signal from the nonprofit sector is that they can’t handle what’s next without major help, and that likely includes government. Catholic Charities normally selects those it helps based on acute and sudden need, given there are already too many people in or near poverty that can be helped by the program. Boudreaux notes that some federal funding coming in from the CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief package signed into law last week, could funnel through state and local channels to add stability to Acadiana’s housing needs. LCG received $850,000 in block grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the CARES Act. That may be able to be used for rental assistance, according to Leigh Rachal of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, but it’s unclear whether it could extend to other bills like utilities. 

“There’s no concern,” Mayor-President Josh Guillory snapped when asked how his office was preparing for the wave of instability at a press briefing Friday. Asked if he could clarify, he said “no.” 

Local government has a lot to lose if utility bills start to fall through. LUS paid roughly $23 million in in-lieu-tax payments in 2019, consistent with historical trends, to support the city of Lafayette’s general fund. That a chunk of revenues could vanish is an area of real concern for many smaller municipalities. It’s what complicated Abbeville’s brief decision to continue disconnects altogether. That city relies heavily on its utility revenues  But the scale of LUS leaves it able to absorb losses to a point. In the meantime, LUS has waived disconnection and late fees for 60 days and has not seen an appreciable decline in revenue. 

Boudreaux is concerned Share the Light could see substantial declines in its donations. Normally, people elect to add a dollar or more to their bills to pay into the program. It’s not uncommon for Catholic Charities to help its clientele pay the minimum on utility bills as high as $1,200, as unpaid balances snowball, month after month. LUS does work out payment plans on an individual basis, Boudreaux says, which helps. But poverty may reach people who have never experienced such hardship before. LCG has urged customers to pay what they can to avoid a lump bill when compassion measures go away, and in the meantime directed those in need to take advantage of Share the Light, an announcement broadcast on Tuesday. Calls for help had fallen silent at Catholic Charities until LCG directed those in need to take advantage of the program. The announcement took Catholic Charities off guard. 

“Our phone started ringing until late last night,” Boudreaux says, adding that it hasn’t stopped.