As Lafayette freezes, St. Joseph Diner loses heating unit

Icicles hang from the letters of a sign.
Icicles hang from the sign of St. Joseph Diner in Lafayette on Tuesday, Jan. 16. Photo by Alena Maschke

While Lafayette grapples with freezing temperatures this week, Catholic Charities of Acadiana is asking for help to replace the heating unit at St. Joseph Diner, where it serves two meals a day to people in need. 

“Like everybody else we’re kicking on our heaters for the first time this winter, just checking everything out, and sure enough, the heater in the dining room of the diner does not work. So that was an unwelcome surprise yesterday,” says CCA spokesperson Ben Broussard. 

Space heaters are now being used to warm the diner to the extent possible, and Catholic Charities says repairing the unit could take four to six weeks. A replacement is being pursued as quickly as possible at a to-be-determined cost. CCA is asking for financial support to immediately address the situation and help meet its clients’ needs

“We’ve got space heaters running all over the place, and that’s helping, but it’s not ideal. … The diner is a place of daily refuge for those who are unsheltered, so we will be raising money to help replace the heater in the diner so that in future disasters like this we can continue providing that open door for people to come and get out of the cold,” says Broussard.

The timing of the outage is particularly unfortunate, as Catholic Charities is currently housing some 150 people at warming shelters in Lafayette and shuttling them to the diner for meals, with help from Lafayette Consolidated Government. 

Scott Brasseaux, 54, is one of many people who have turned to St. Joseph Diner as a haven from the cold weather. Brasseaux sat across the street from the diner Tuesday, bundled in blankets. He says he had to give up his apartment after the property changed hands and the new landlord raised the rent by $200, pushing it beyond what he could afford on his monthly social security and disability check. 

A man sits on the ground wearing a hoodie and covered in blankets.
Scott Brasseaux, 54, sits across the street from St. Joseph Diner during Tuesday’s frigid weather. Photo by Alena Maschke

He’s been going to the library to look for apartments online, but said he hasn’t been able to find anything he can afford. “It all exceeds what I can spend,” says Brasseux. He’s waiting for the new men’s shelter to be opened on the Catholic Charities lot on Simcoe Street. 

In the meantime, he goes inside the diner a few times a day to escape the cold, before venturing back outside when the company of everyone inside gets to be too much. “I can’t stay in there for too long,” he says.

The diner is also a main point of entry into the local shelter system for the people who are most reluctant to enter shelters, says Broussard. Despite the heater setback, operations at the diner will continue as freezing weather threatens the region Tuesday night into Wednesday. 

“We had about 20 folks at the diner this morning who slept outside last night,” says Broussard. “Those were only the 20 that came. There are definitely more, and it’s going to be colder tonight than it was last night, so it remains to be seen what tonight will be.”

Though local operations have so far been able to scale to the demand for shelter freezing weather, it has laid bare the need for more shelter space and better paths out of homelessness, says Elsa Dimitriadis, executive director for the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing. 

Existing shelters around the region were at full capacity ahead of the freeze, she says, and have only been able to respond to this week’s crisis with support from local governments, which have opened temporary warming shelters around the area. That has been vital, she says, but it also shows the number of people in need of a more permanent shelter solution. 

“The work that we do, we are the canaries in the mine. We know these numbers are going to be larger this year in our point-in-time count than they were last year,” says Dimitriadis. “As we see the cost of living increase, we know that historically that means increased homelessness. So, yes this was a great solution for our freeze, but we do need to be looking long-term at expanding our shelter solutions.”

That solution needs to simultaneously address the region’s need for more affordable housing options, as Dimitriadis says many of the people filing the area’s shelters are experiencing homelessness for the first time after “doing everything the right way.”

“Homelessness is a housing problem; it’s a deeply affordable housing problem,” she says. “So, while we’re pulling people out of the proverbial river, we need to look upstream and start building deeply affordable housing solutions. Creative, innovative solutions so that fewer people are falling into the stream.”