Lafayette is running out of shelter space

A mat and a bag of belongings sit beneath a statue of Jesus
The St. John Street shelter is set to reopen by the end of the year. That may help reduce the number of people living unsheltered in the LaPlace neighborhood, but the number of beds it can provide will be well short of the number needed. Photo by Robin May

Olivia Baker and Bre Hicks used to fill the community fridge in Fightinville with vegetables, canned foods and home cooked meals every Wednesday and Thursday.  As of late January, they stopped. The sticker-bombed fridge is gone. 

“We had that little space. That’s ours,” Hicks says, pointing and squinting her eyes at the colorful shelter that housed the fridge. Baker interjects, “We’re still trying to figure out what to do with all that stuff.”

The property’s ownership group asked the fridge, one of three operated by Lafayette Community Fridge, to leave, citing problems associated with those who patronized it, many of whom were homeless. 

So the community fridge’s organizers moved out. The episode points to a larger problem facing the Fightinville neighborhood and Lafayette in general: a lack of shelter space and an increase in the number of people without housing. 

Complaints had mounted from neighbors and businesses about public urination, drug use and trash, says property co-owner Pat Trahan. He tried to make accommodations, but it didn’t work out.

“We wanted to have that pantry there; we were happy to have it there. Then a second neighbor complained, [then a] third neighbor complained,” Trahan says. “Something in that neighborhood has changed; everyone who’s there and who cares [is] trying to figure it out.”

Disclosure: Gus Rezende, one of the property owners at Fightinville Fresh, is a former member of The Current’s board of directors. Read our conflict of interest policy here.

Fightinville, also called LaPlace, hugs Downtown Lafayette and is home to St. Joseph Diner, only a few blocks from where the fridge used to be, and Catholic Charities’ shelter, which is currently under renovation and temporarily closed. 

Homelessness has been apparent in this neighborhood for years, but it’s become more visible as shelters closed. Empty lots in the area house tent camps and makeshift shelters. 

Lafayette is in dire need of more shelter space, say organizations like Catholic Charities and the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing (ARCH). 

Shelters in Lafayette closed at the onset of the pandemic in early 2020. Housing support agencies moved people into hotels around Lafayette using emergency federal and state government funds. Those funds have long since dried up, and some shelters in Lafayette, like the Salvation Army on 6th Street, shuttered permanently, ARCH Executive Director Elsa Dimitriadis says, leaving Lafayette with less space than it had before the pandemic.

While millions in rent relief have flowed into the market, those funds are aimed at preventing homelessness and don’t address the lack of shelter. More public investment is needed, housing advocates say. 

“[Lafayette Consolidated Government] has not adequately prioritized funding for a non-congregate shelter,” says Dimitriadis. “The number of people who are living outside of shelter is going up because we’ve seen nearly a 40% decrease in available beds since before COVID.”

Shelters are at capacity daily. Those who don’t get a spot stay on the street. In 2022, 351 people were recorded experiencing some kind of homelessness in Lafayette, according to an annual count performed by service agencies; 255 were in emergency shelters and 53 were unsheltered. 

Several tents in an open field
An encampment of people experiencing homelessness behind St. Joseph Diner this week. Photo by Robin May

Lafayette shelters reported 227 emergency shelter beds available during the 2022 annual count. But 37 were reserved for people fleeing domestic violence, and 108 were temporary emergency shelter beds funded with Covid relief money. 

Capacity is going to decline further as those temporary emergency shelters roll off. 

Compounding that problem is rising housing instability. ARCH reported housing 1,700 people in 2022, a dramatic increase across its programming. Ben Broussard of Catholic Charities says his organization’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the pandemic, averaging 9,400 calls a month. 

“That’s across all our programs — St. Joseph people looking for food, people at risk of losing their homes, people who have suffered at the hands of natural disaster,” says Broussard. 

Funding hasn’t kept up. Catholic Charities relies heavily on donations from residents and philanthropy. But it’s still not enough, according to Broussard, because the organization runs in the red year to year. 

“You see people who for lack of available resources in the community are not having their essential human needs met,” Broussard says. “We’re doing the best we can with the limited resources we have.”

The St. John Street shelter is set to reopen by the end of the year. That may help reduce the number of people living unsheltered in the LaPlace neighborhood, but the number of beds it can provide will be well short of the number needed. Currently, Catholic Charities has moved its shelter operation to a site on Willow Street that provides 87 beds. The St. John Street shelter used to hold 42 beds and 16 military veterans at St. Michael’s Shelter. 

A lack of affordable housing in the market is complicating matters. Providers have few, if any, options to transition people into permanent homes.

“We have people on the streets with housing vouchers. That’s literally never happened before,” says Kim Boudreaux, Catholic Charities’ chief executive officer.

Read more on Housing and Homelessness

Catholic Charities has joined six other local housing organizations in asking Lafayette Consolidated Government for a more permanent solution to homelessness — $6.5 million to purchase an out-of-use hotel that would be retrofitted into a permanent, low-barrier, non-congregate shelter.

Attempts to secure public funding for more shelter space have fizzled. A coalition of organizations that work with people experiencing homelessness pitched a plan to fund a multi-agency shelter with money from Lafayette’s cut of the American Rescue Plan Act, but a City Council ordinance allocating $1 million to that effort was shelved. 

By contrast, LCG spent $8.9 million on the animal shelter completed in 2021. Its operations are funded by a millage. 

“I can tell you with certainty that the general consensus is the city has continued to drop the ball with this issue over and over again and refuses to take responsibility,” says Jennifer Doucet, president of Townfolk, a neighborhood organization that operates the Victory Garden and other outreach services in LaPlace. 

The Victory Garden was impacted by the same issues that closed the fridge. The garden, which is open to the public, erected no trespassing signs over staff safety issues in part due to drug use, drug sales and related activities happening near the property, Doucet says. 

“It made it impossible for anyone to come and enjoy the garden,” Doucet says. “We had reports of guns. It just became a very unsafe place quickly.”

Two women stand outside of a farmers market
Bre Hicks, left, and Brandy Wilson stand where the community fridge was once located outside the Fightinville Fresh Market.

Police advised them to put up a no trespassing sign. The problem abated after they installed the signage and a yellow plastic chain. 

Doucet stresses that the issue is not with those living unhoused. 

“I hate to even say it’s a problem. They are human beings,” Doucet says. “I think the problem is that the city needs to take more responsibility in funding and providing adequate shelter and resources.” 

Inflation has pushed more people closer to the edge, despite millions in aid that flowed into the community during the pandemic. Rent prices in Lafayette increased 22% since the pandemic, with the median 1-bedroom rent slightly north of $1,000 in March 2023. But wages in Louisiana have only increased 10.5% since the end of 2020. 

Community responses like community fridge sprouted to address that instability. With it no longer in Fightinville, the problem remains. For now, fridge organizers are refocusing efforts on their two other fridges in Acadiana and trying to keep their spirits high.

“It’s one step at a time,” Hicks says. “We tried to take one step and now we took a step back.”

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