Lafayette loses more shelter space as housing needs mount

Photo by Travis Gauthier
Correction: The rental assistance report projected a monthly average workforce reduction of 41,000, not 21,500.

The gist: Deterioration of the facility and a lack of funding have shuttered a men’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army of Lafayette. Shelter operators are already squeezed for space. Housing advocates have seen housing needs rise quickly since coronavirus struck and are warning that conditions could get historically bad without massive relief. 

Closing the shelter was in the works before the pandemic. But the loss nevertheless comes at a bad time. The 26 men staying there have been relocated to hotels, where most of the Lafayette area’s overflow of unsheltered people have been housed since the pandemic took hold. 

“It became apparent that the shelter’s closure is necessary because the building’s condition does not meet the standards of a Salvation Army shelter,” Divisional Secretary Captain Mark Hunter told KLFY this week. Thursday was the shelter’s last day of operation. Salvation Army’s kitchen and counseling services will continue. 

Lafayette has now lost 80 shelter beds since the beginning of the pandemic. A “low barrier” shelter operated by Catholic Charities of Acadiana was closed because its arrangement was ill-suited to house people and keep them safe from coronavirus. Shelter residents checked in for overnight stays and used floor space, which was routinely packed, says Leigh Rachal, CEO of Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. 

“It’s a stress to the system for sure,” she says of the Salvation Army shelter’s closing. “Each additional person we’re trying to find shelter space for is one more bed we don’t have.” 

Homelessness has risen 62% in Lafayette Parish since the onset of the pandemic. As incomes are slashed and job opportunities remain scarce, housing advocates have called the rise unprecedented and are warning that the need will worsen if more isn’t done to keep people who are nearing eviction in their homes. Some of 548 people currently in local shelters are without housing for the first time, pushed off the financial cliff when they lost their jobs during the lockdown of the national economy. 

More than 1,300 people have called 211 asking for help with housing since the end of March. The trend in calls was briefly the most common call 211 agents received in the Lafayette area around the late April peak. Call volumes related to housing remain elevated above normal times but have declined since an early May spike. 

A report suggests metro Lafayette will need tens of millions in rental assistance to forestall a wave of homelessness. The report by consulting firm Enterprise Community Partners, drawn from economic forecasts published by a UL economist, projects $54 million in aggregate need through the end of the year and $125 million through next July. The Enterprise report assumes high levels of sustained unemployment, roughly 41,000 people each month, through the middle of next year, a 20% drop in overall employment, which would lead the state.

Statewide the need tops $700 million in worst-case scenario projections. The staggering price tag has advocates calling for the state and municipalities to divert as much coronavirus relief funds as possible to housing assistance programs, which some communities have opted to do at varying levels. Lafayette is poised to use all $850,000 of an emergency allocation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on small business grants, a decision that drew fierce criticism from housing advocates. Louisiana has received millions in coronavirus HUD dollars, but advocates say it’s far from enough and are urging congressional lawmakers to lobby for more direct assistance to housing programs. Renters and advocates across the country watch nervously for evictions to resume.  (Stays on evictions are scheduled to end June 5, but the governor’s office indicated it may be extended to June 15, according to NOLA.com.)

“It’s overwhelming,” Rachal says of the scale of need. “The only way we can [match the need] is with federal and state dollars.”

About the Author

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, Gambit, and The Advocate.

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