Homelessness, an increasingly visible problem in Lafayette, is an urgent topic for residents of the LaPlace/Fightinville neighborhood. The issue drew a tense atmosphere at the annual meeting of the neighborhood’s coterie, where residents directly confronted presenters about what the nonprofit sector and city-parish government planned to do about it.
The area near Downtown is bearing the brunt of converging problems. There are more people living without shelter and fewer shelter beds available for them. Residents say they want to ensure the unhoused’s needs are acknowledged and met, and hope to work together as a collective to achieve that goal.
“If you can fund a no-kill shelter, surely you can fund a shelter for human beings. Surely you can do something about this syndrome that’s capturing a ton of people in our neighborhood who are still our fellow Americans. They still deserve the help they’re entitled to as citizens of this country,” resident James Proctor said at the meeting.
Community leaders have tried without success to get buy-in for a government solution, a message they brought to frustrated neighbors.
Elsa Dimitriadis, executive director of the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness & Housing, outlined how this issue reached this point. In short, it’s the result of a snowball effect.
A surge of devastating weather related disasters in 2020 and 2021 destroyed homes in coastal areas of the state, and many of those residents sought refuge in Lafayette. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a record high unemployment rate but also aggressive government protections and assistance programs. Those protections have run out.
“We saw an incredible amount of money come in during COVID. We were able to take people and put them into local hotels and motels … over 1,000 households,” Dimitriadis told residents at the meeting. “That money was temporary. When the money ended in August and we didn’t have the funds to continue to host them in hotels and motels, they’re now on the street. What you’re seeing is visible homelessness. The homelessness was always there, it was always the same number, but now they’re very present, and very present in your community.”
The expiration of this assistance is compounded by the lack of shelters in the area. Two shelters serving the Lafayette area have closed since 2020, resulting in a 40% decrease in available beds.
According to the latest annual census of homeless persons, there are at least an additional 100 people living on the street than there were a year ago, a number Dimitriadis says is likely an undercount.
City Councilman Glenn Lazard, who represents the district, empathized with residents and assured them that this was a priority for him — especially as an issue that disproportionately affects Black and brown people — but said he simply didn’t have the votes to move the issue forward.
Tens of millions in federal coronavirus relief poured into Lafayette, Lazard told neighbors. But, he said, none was allocated to dealing with the surge in housing insecurity, despite a coordinated effort by local housing organizations to convince LCG to use that windfall to build a sorely needed shelter. Lazard championed that cause on the council.
“This simply wasn’t a priority,” the councilman said. “I made every effort to get funds allocated … and simply couldn’t get a majority vote on the council.”
He urged residents to voice their concerns at council meetings.