How can Lafayette tackle 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

How to address the issue of rising homelessness was the key question at the center of a series of meetings organized by Catholic Charities of Acadiana over the past few months. 

Convening four separate meetings at the Downtown Convention Center, the Homelessness to Housed project gathered input on the kind of services residents thought were needed to reduce homelessness, the kind of housing they would like to see created and — possibly the most prickly question of them all — where to place that housing.

As the main provider of homeless services in Lafayette, Catholic Charities received a grant from the D.C.-based nonprofit Urban Land Institute to host the meeting series, which featured group activities that prompted attendees to discuss options for creating more housing, the key challenge identified by the organization.

“Affordable housing is an incredible issue in our community right now,” said Catholic Charities of Acadiana CEO Kim Boudreaux. 

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In one activity, attendees were asked to place stickers on a map of Lafayette, identifying existing properties that they thought should be turned into housing or plots where new housing could be built.

Attendees saw a particularly high density of opportunities for housing development in the downtown area, in part because of the existing supportive services already available in that area and the relatively good connection to public transit. 

The most mentioned property during that exercise was the old J. Wallace Elementary School in the Four Corners area. Redeveloping that property has proven challenging. Recent plans to turn it into a mental health facility were foiled by community pushback. Other properties mentioned for potential reuse as affordable housing were the Holy Rosary Institute, the former northside Walmart and the old Trappey’s canning plant.

The charity does not have the power or resources to take over any of the suggested properties and turn them into housing, Boudreaux said, emphasizing that the series of events served to take the temperature of the community and receive input on potential solutions to the issue of homelessness.

“This was a meaningful exercise for us to go through,” Boudreaux said. “This gives us a map of, a consensus of what the community is supportive of.”

While this series of meetings has concluded, the conversation on the issue continues. On June 27, the Downtown Development Authority will be hosting a meeting to discuss the potential for collaboration between different organizations and government agencies to address homelessness in the downtown area. Kevin Blanchard, the new CEO of the DDA has declared safety to be one of his top priorities in office.

In addition to a shortage of housing, Boudreaux noted that there was also a lack of conventional, short-term shelter available to accommodate those pushed into homelessness.  . “We don’t have enough emergency shelter beds,” she said. “That’s largely a result of there not being annual operating dollars to have those beds in our community.”

But, Boudreaux noted, recent conversations with the new administration of Mayor Monique Boulet left her hopeful that this might soon change. “We need to find a sustainable way to operate emergency shelters,” she said. “I’m very optimistic about the administration’s commitment to being a key partner in addressing this complex issue in the community.”

Catholic Charities is the largest provider of shelter beds in Lafayette. Its renovated shelter on the charity’s campus in the La Place neighborhood is expected to reopen this summer.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a correction. A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that Catholic Charities was the only provider of shelter beds in Lafayette.