New grant in hand, Lafayette orgs hope to create playbook to combat homelessness

Several people put post it notes on s sheet on a table.
Attendees of the first "Homeless to Housed" community event identify community resources related to housing during a table activity at the Downtown Convention Center in Lafayette, La. on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Photo by Alena Maschke

Over the past three years, homelessness in Louisiana has more than doubled. In Acadiana , shelters are filled to the brim and still, an average of 160 people are without a roof over their head every night.

Now, the main provider of homeless services in the region, Catholic Charities of Acadiana, with the assistance of New Orleans-based consulting firm Concordia and the national nonprofit Urban Land Institute, is hoping to create a game plan for housing in the region to help combat homelessness.

“There’s been a kink for years at the end of the homeless system; it is finding affordable and available housing,” said Ben Broussard, Catholic Charities’ director of external affairs. “We often are responding to broken systems that funnel out onto our campus.”

In a series of meetings, funded with a $10,000 grant from ULI, the group is working to convene a diverse group of residents, political leaders and other stakeholders to analyze the housing landscape and develop solutions that will increase access to housing for those struggling to attain it.

“Tonight we have a huge cross section of the community, from CEOs to former clients of ours,” Broussard said of the first of four meetings, which took place at the Downtown Convention Center Thursday night. The goal, Broussard added, is “ to build a true public consensus on where the community wants to go.”

Lafayette is one of five cities selected to participate in ULI’s “Homeless to Housed” initiative nationwide, together with San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Francisco and San Diego.

With local partners in those cities, ULI is looking to “take a deep dive to explore: what are the challenges, what are the opportunities and how can real estate be an active partner in achieving new solutions,” said William Zeh Herbig, senior director of content at the nonprofit.

Founded in 1936, during the Great Depression, ULI is a global nonprofit made up of real estate professionals with the stated mission to “shape the future of the built environment for transformative impact in communities worldwide,” through research and education.

Seed funding for the grant came from Bay Area real estate developer Preston Butcher, who donated $1.5 million to the initiative, which was added to by other members of the organization.

Herbig described the three main goals of the meetings planned for Lafayette, the next one of which will take place Jan. 25, as conducting research, building awareness and providing local technical assistance.

“We’re providing the platform, the convening series, but it’s really up to the citizens and the stakeholders and partners assembled in this room to determine what that action agenda for change is,” Herbig said.

Having the backing of a global organization and a record of input from a large group of local organizations gives more heft to any propositions to developers, investors and political leaders that might come out of the effort, Broussard noted.

“When we show up at LCG meetings or at the state capitol, we’re just one service provider,” he said. “This is not just our voice, this is the voice of the entire community.”

The meetings are an important first step to addressing homelessness in Lafayette, said Kim Culotta, co-founder of the Fightinville Fresh Market and a resident of the Fightinville neighborhood, where the city’s homelessness problem is especially visible. 

“I’m thrilled that we’re taking this kind of action — it certainly can’t hurt,” Culotta said. “We all have the same goals and I imagine it’s going to move us forward at least a couple of notches and hopefully have a direction that the community can get behind.”

Eventually though, she said, there will have to be money allocated to help solve the issue. “Nobody is expecting there to be budgets coming out of these meetings. But, obviously, the goal is to devote resources to this issue,” Culotta said.

For now, educating the community on the relationship between housing and homelessness, and creating more awareness of the issue, is a worthwhile pursuit, Culotta added. 

“In our city in particular, one of the main issues why we’re not addressing the issue is because people are in denial. If you’re not confronted with it face-to-face, they don’t even realize it’s an issue,” she said. “That’s what we need to grow as a community, just awareness and the willingness to take some responsibility.”