Sheltering the unsheltered amid COVID-19

How do you stay safe at home if you don’t have a home? That’s the question Acadiana’s shelters for people experiencing homlessness are struggling with right now. Lacking adequate healthcare, those who are unsheltered are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Local shelters are already at capacity, and more people are becoming homeless each day. It’s a public health problem, according to advocates. 

Leigh Rachal, executive director for the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness & Housing, calls the situation a “perfect storm.” Available beds in the region have decreased from 434 to 308, to make more room for social distancing, while at the same the demand for shelter is increasing. 

“People whose housing wasn’t stable before are becoming homeless,” explains Rachal. “People who were already staying in a hotel and have lost their jobs can’t pay for a hotel room. They are moving into their cars.” Domestic violence situations are also on the rise. 

Shelters and case workers normally work to get homeless individuals and families into stable housing, but that’s challenging right now while many landlord and housing offices are closed. 

“What do we do, because we know that having an unsheltered population at this time is a public health risk,” says ARCH’s Rachal. “People who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness increase community spread.” 

The CDC’s guidelines suggest agencies like ARCH identify ways to isolate those without housing in individual units where social distancing protocols can be followed. “That translates to hotel rooms,” says Rachal. 

New Orleans made national news by moving homeless camps to a temporarily closed Hilton Garden Inn in the city’s CBD. Rachal says Lafayette doesn’t have the same homeless numbers as New Orleans, but local hotels are helping to house those in need one discounted room at a time. ARCH is raising money to donate hotel rooms for the homeless at a rate of $30 a night. (That adds up to $210 for the week and $930 a month; so far, about $3,000 of the $60,000 goal has been raised.) Rooms are prioritized for those in unsafe situations or whose medical conditions make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. 

The private donations are intended to help fill the gap until federal funding comes in through The CARES Act, but that could take a while. “We don’t need a whole bunch of rooms today, but two months from now we might,” adds Rachal. 

Ben Broussard with Catholic Charities of Acadiana says financial assistance is the need they are anticipating for the future. 

“Utility and rent bills are being deferred, not being forgiven, and eventually the piper is going to ask to get paid,” Broussard says. “My concern is those bills are going to be doubled, tripled and quadrupled. That’s a disaster individuals are going to find hard to overcome. Right now, there is a finite pot of money that we work with on a monthly basis to handle those needs. In order to work to keep people in their homes, there’s going to be a lot of need in financial assistance.” 

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Catholic Charities’ three shelters were operating right over capacity. They had enough space to shelter about 160 individuals per night. Additional space has been made on the floor of St. Joseph Diner. Meals are still served three times a day, just from a box, and shelter clients are asked to eat in other areas.

Both Rachal and Broussard say what shelters are currently doing is working to keep the homeless population safe. Those in shelters are free to come and go, but “they are having their needs met so they don’t feel the need to get out,” says Broussard. “They have bought into being safe.” 

Those members of the homeless population who have visited a doctor or hospital and are awaiting test results, or have a positive test result, could be taken to a state park for holding. In response to a lack of isolated quarantine space, the lieutenant governor’s office set up isolation centers at Chicot State Park in Ville Platte, Lake Bistineau State Park near Shreveport and Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego. Rachal says some people ARCH works with have already returned from Chicot, and according to State Parks Director Brandon Burris, the site currently has two patients, not necessarily homeless, in quarantine with enough room for 13 more in cabins and 100 RV sites. 

While larger numbers of the homeless population have been quarantined at Bayou Segnette, the state wants to make it clear that state parks are not meant to be homeless camps. 

“Initially, when these camps were talked about, there was a lot of misconception,” says Mike Steele, communications director for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “It’s another option available if people need a temporary place to go so they’re not potentially impacting others.”  

Individuals brought to Chicot could also include adults living with their grandparents, elderly people in nursing homes or those living in transitional group homes. If someone does test positive for COVID-19, they would be quarantined at a state park for a minimum of 14 days and routinely checked throughout the day by an on-site RN, according to Burris. For the homeless population, once test results come back and are either negative, or positive and the person has recovered, they are discharged into the community of their choice and connected with homeless services. Rachal says in most cases these individuals are being relocated to hotel rooms funded by a voucher from the Louisiana Housing Corp. 

Local shelters usually rely on volunteers for help with food donations, serving meals and personal hygiene products, but that is not an option right now. The public can help by giving monetary donations and not doing things like serving food in the park or giving the homeless other reasons to leave a shelter. “We absolutely want to discourage groups from going to feed the homeless independently,” says Rachal. “In normal times it’s a beautiful act of service, but right now it’s harmful. Our shelter staff are risking their lives every day, because people are free to come and go. We are doing our best to create sanitary conditions and screening at the doors, but the more they are enticed to leave, the more likely we will have an incident at the shelter.” 

As this chart shows, Acadiana’s homeless numbers had been on the decline in recent years; this year, however, they’re creeping back up, currently at 420.

Homeless numbers increasing this year

ARCH presents an annual “Point in Time” count of people experiencing homelessness in January of each year. Rachal says the numbers had been decreasing from 631 in 2007, when they first started tracking, to 360 in 2019. This year is showing those numbers creeping back up to 420 so far. 

An Emergency Shelter Update chart dated March 31 shows a decrease of 126 beds as a result of  COVID-19 and 303 total beds occupied. This includes shelters in Lafayette, Acadia, St. Mary, Iberia and St. Landry parishes serving families with minor children, single adults and households fleeing domestic violence. 

Here’s how you can help:

The best way for the public to help the homeless population is by making a monetary donation. Catholic Charities has a link on their website to donate here.

To sponsor a hotel room through ARCH, go here

Second Harvest is helping with food donations for shelters. Donate money for meals here. Through April 30, monetary gifts to Second Harvest will be matched up to $75,000 by Entergy Corp.