Local police don’t have the manpower or budget to address problems associated with unsheltered homelessness in Lafayette, itself caused by a lack of resources and neighborhood violence, officials told residents of the LaPlace area near Downtown this week.
LaPlace Coterie residents met with leadership from Catholic Charities of Acadiana and the Lafayette Police Department at St. Joseph Diner to address neighborhood safety concerns, hashing out how to move forward in the wake of a rash of gun violence. Neighbors have also grown frustrated with people living unsheltered in the area, which is home to Catholic Charities’ outreach services. They walked away with few answers but a promise to keep looking for them.
“We need help, y’all,” Chief Judith Estorge told those gathered. “We need mental health experts and social agencies to step in and help. We can only enforce the laws that are on the books. … We want to do what we can, but we can’t violate people’s rights. We can take them off of your property, and we will. But we can’t take them to the jail because it’s not a felony.”
Residents are exasperated by a string of property crimes and violence in the area, and say police aren’t doing enough. Catholic Charities disbanded a tent encampment on its campus earlier this month after a fight between two minors, neither of whom lived in the encampment, escalated into gun violence one afternoon while Catholic Charities staff handed out meals.
“We’ve seen the escalation. We stopped serving dinner because our staff doesn’t feel safe. We [only operate] when we have an officer [on site],” said Kim Boudreaux, Catholic Charities’ executive director. “People are hungry; they don’t know where they’re going to sleep.”
Just ahead of this week’s meeting, a bystander to a fight in the neighborhood was shot. Police later confirmed to The Current that the victim sustained minor injuries.
Estorge could offer little more than to ask residents to stay in touch. Increasing patrol in the neighborhood would mean designating an officer to the area. Cameras cost money and take manpower to deploy.
Safety concerns forced the move, but aid workers say they aren’t sure where those pushed out of the encampment will go.
Police say they have made progress locating a group of teenagers alleged to have been the source of violence in the neighborhood, arresting two with two more suspects at large, according to Maj. Mike Brown, who attended the meeting with Estorge and other top-ranked officers.
Still, residents say they feel unsafe and want police to do more. Persistent homelessness continues to cause friction there.
“I need the police to come and ask these people to move on,” said Greg Simon, a lifelong LaPlace resident. “Because one [is] gonna come, two [are] gonna come over the weekend, and I don’t want that in my neighborhood.”
But there’s a limit to what the police can do, officers say. Homelessness is not a crime, and the most common infractions associated with it — trespassing and littering — are misdemeanors, which yield citations and a request to move along, Estorge said. Officers can do little more than that.
“So they’re going to leave your property and go on to [another],” she said.
Rising homelessness has been an intractable problem nationwide, the chief said; she has looked to other communities for ideas. Complicating matters, police are understaffed.
“We’ve got to get city administration to step in and provide services and give people options other than sleeping in a tent on the sidewalk or crawling into somebody’s property,” Estorge said. “We are open to suggestions.”
Earlier this year, Lafayette Consolidated Government settled a federal lawsuit connected to its aggressive policing of panhandlers who cycled in and out of jail. LCG paid a homeless man $42,000 for violating his constitutional rights.
The suit aimed to stop LCG’s clampdown on panhandling — which district and appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have repeatedly found to be protected speech under the First Amendment.
LPD plans to apply for a grant to get a mental health resource officer involved with the law enforcement agency, but that’s still a ways away, Estorge noted. She wants to allocate more resources to the LaPlace neighborhood, but budget remains a problem.
There are other options being explored, including moving already existing cameras into other areas in the neighborhood. Additionally, police have begun enforcing a juvenile curfew in the area and facilitating break-in details.
Overall, police want to continue to build relationships with residents who have their ears on the ground. Officers shared contact information and emphasized their commitment to being point people for the area’s residents.
“It’s meetings like this where the public comes and talks to us and we talk to the public where we build community trust that we’ll get a resource brought to us,” said Capt. Craig Mouton. “It is not illegal to be homeless. It is not illegal to have mental illness. A lot of the problems that we’re experiencing or that have been expressed this evening deal with a lot of that.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify that the alleged shooters involved in recent neighborhood gun violence did not live in the tent encampment.