How are other communities handling rising homelessness?

Photo by Travis Gauthier
“I want homeless humans to be treated at least as well as homeless dogs and cats in our city,” says Catholic Charities of Acadiana's Kim Boudreaux from St. Joseph Shelter for men, which sits empty due to Covid restrictions.

Editor’s Note: Many readers recently indicated a desire to see the city use ARPA Funds to address housing and homelessness in Acadiana. This story looks to answer those community concerns by reporting on how other cities have approached these issues, along with taking a closer look at the needs of our region when it comes to sheltering the homeless.

Catholic Charities of Acadiana’s Kim Boudreaux has known people experiencing homelessness in the Lafayette community for nearly two decades, and their stories stay with her long after they move on from the housing assistance her organization provides. One young man, who years ago slept under the awning near the St. Joseph Shelter for Men on St. John Street, rode his bike six miles down traffic-clogged Johnston Street to his job at The Olive Garden. He’d wash up in the bathroom of a nearby restaurant, clock in, and at the end of his shift, bike six miles back to his home under the awning. One night, after months of this routine and still unable to afford rent or a hotel room, someone in a car rolled their window down, yelled “Get a job!” and hurled a Big Gulp at him where he slept on the sidewalk.

“People don’t understand the complexity of the issue,” Boudreaux says. “How many hours you have to work at minimum wage to afford an apartment.” In Lafayette Parish, where the median income for renters is around $13.63 an hour and the average market-rate two-bedroom apartment costs $900 a month, the average person spends almost 40% of their monthly income on rent. If you’re making minimum wage, that percentage jumps to more than 75%, leaving little or nothing afterward for food, medicine and other basic needs.

Following a brutal hurricane season and entering the worst surge of coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic, Boudreaux says many living in tenuous housing situations before 2020 have found themselves suddenly without shelter, and some have turned to panhandling to meet those needs. In response, Lafayette police have cracked down on panhandlers over the past year, a move Bourdreaux says does little to address the complex problems that people experiencing homelessness face. With financial support from the city, she and other local organizations that shelter those in need think there’s a more effective way forward. The success of similar programs in other cities across the nation suggest they may be right.

Nationwide, homelessness has increased over the past year, although the complex nature of the issue complicates how to quantify the uptick. “I can’t give you numbers on how much homelessness has increased during the pandemic, but we know it has increased,” Marcia L. Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, told The New York Times in March. In Louisiana, the crisis was compounded by last year’s devastating hurricane season — but we weren’t the only city that had to contend with severe weather in addition to the pandemic.

Cleveland, Ohio, for instance, saw above-average snowfall in December 2020 and a storm early in the month that dropped more snow on the city than the previous two Decembers combined. Getting those experiencing homelessness out of the elements proved more challenging than in years past, given that most shelters in the city bunked folks in shared rooms. This kind of shelter, called a “congregate shelter,” posed serious risks for increased transmission of COVID-19. 

Lafayette’s homeless advocates responded to this threat and kept Covid at bay among this population by setting up a temporary hotel program. At one time, nearly 750 people were booked into a network of hotels in Acadiana, but the program had to be wound down earlier this year as funding dried up. Catholic Charities continues to shelter families and youth in hotel rooms to prevent spread of Covid, but due to limited capacity it’s currently unable to house single adults in this manner, leaving “hundreds of people without shelter,” Boudreaux says. 

Like Lafayette, Cleveland-area shelters pivoted to a “non-congregate” model, working with local hotels to house people in separate rooms. Following this method, the local men’s shelter — the largest in Ohio — kept a Covid-positivity rate of only 4.3 percent among the population they served. In fact, throughout the pandemic, cities and states across the country successfully expanded their housing capacity in a similar fashion, by acquiring hotels and motels and converting them into permanent housing for the homeless. In July, the National Alliance to End Homelessness published case studies that outline some of those successful hotels-to-housing initiatives.

Further west, in Eugene, Ore., a creative collaboration between mental health service providers, paramedics and the local police department has allowed the city to respond to non-violent issues among the unsheltered in their community without criminalizing or arresting them. The town, with a population just over that of Lafayette’s, calls its program CAHOOTS, short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, and responded to almost a fifth of all of Eugene’s 911 calls in 2019. Instead of dispatching cops, CAHOOTS sends out a medic and a crisis responder trained in behavioral health. Most of CAHOOTS’ clients are homeless, and around a third suffer from mental illnesses.

In addition to preventing unnecessary police dispatches and, in the worst case, fatal shootings, the program saves the city about $8.5 million in public safety costs every year, according to CAHOOTS’s numbers.

Similarly, the Homeless Outreach Program in Colorado Springs is administered through its fire department. Rather than responding to 911 calls, however, the program proactively sends teams of two — a medic and a mental health provider — into the streets to create relationships with those living in camps or otherwise unsheltered. By building rapport and trust, the teams are able to help deliver a wide variety of support to those experiencing homelessness in their community — everything from assistance with getting birth certificates to signing up for food stamps to meeting with case workers and doctors.

The program costs the city $375,000 per year for two teams of two. According to the director of the program, Andy Phelps, a cohort of 20 homeless people who were flagged prior to 2019 for common infractions like illegally trespassing, camping in parks, urinating or defecating in public has been issued 71% fewer tickets than when the program began two years ago.

“The answer to homelessness is housing and services, and not just more tickets,” Phelps said in an interview for The Gazette earlier this month.

Already, Lafayette’s nonprofits run some similar programs to serve the homeless population. Boudreaux explained how Catholic Charities works “to make sure that people at risk of losing their housing have the ability to stay in their housing.” They offer financial assistance for emergencies like the sudden death of a breadwinner, unexpected illness, car trouble. “There’s so many small crises,” she says, “that, for people living paycheck to paycheck, will throw them into homelessness.”

But Boudreaux stresses there’s no single way to tackle the issue, and that “the response is as complicated as the problem. You have to have fully-funded and functioning aspects of the whole system in order for homelessness to be rare, brief and non-recurring.”

That’s why Catholic Charities has joined six other local housing organizations in asking Lafayette Consolidated Government for a more permanent solution — $6.5 million to purchase an out-of-use hotel that would be retrofitted into a permanent, low-barrier, non-congregate homeless shelter. The funds would also staff it for four years with well-trained practitioners.

Leading the effort locally is the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing, or ARCH, which includes Lafayette’s Faith House. Faith House would receive $1 million worth of the funding ask to supplement the care and shelter it offers to those escaping domestic violence in their homes, which Boudreaux says is a frightening but common way some people end up on the streets.

Advocates for the homeless have repeatedly pointed out that, in 2015, the Lafayette City-Parish Council approved $5 million for the construction of a $9 million no-kill animal shelter

Boudreaux, who grew up in Lafayette, hopes the City Council will do the same for its population of people in need.

“I want homeless humans to be treated at least as well as homeless dogs and cats in our city,” she says.

This story was updated to include a link to the National Alliance to End Homelessness' case studies on successful hotels-to-housing initiatives across the country.