It’s not news that jails are crowded, the state’s criminal justice system is clogged with inefficiency and that a lot of people sleep outdoors in downtown Lafayette.
But public agencies and private businesses have banded together to try to address those ills by funding a new and in-the-works shelter. They intend for it to serve the dual purpose of getting people off of Lafayette’s streets at night while diverting some petty offenders from spending a night in jail.
“It’s a point-of-contact option for a police officer to divert an individual from jail and into a location where they’ll get better treatment and, potentially, they won’t become entangled with the criminal justice system,” Corrections Director Rob Reardon, of the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, said of the shelter plans.
While traditional shelters tend to have stringent admission policies when it comes to intoxication, people will be allowed into the “low-barrier” shelter, as it’s called, whether they’re under the influence or suffering from mental illness — so long as they don’t need medical attention.
Two existing shelters serve men in Lafayette, but one of them is always at capacity, while the other has strict rules that deter some from seeking its services.
Catholic Services of Acadiana’s St. Joseph men’s shelter, on St. John Street, has capacity for 38 people plus 20 disabled veterans, and the shelter is filled each day. People are allowed in even if they’ve been drinking, so long as they maintain decent behavior, Executive Director Kim Boudreaux said. Up to 110 women and children in need of shelter are bused to the agency’s facility in Opelousas.
The Salvation Army’s shelter on Evangeline Thruway provides accommodations for up to 36 men each night, but the organization’s strict policies are likely why the facility only reaches capacity a few times a year, manager Mike Rogers said.
Anyone seeking shelter there is tested for alcohol consumption and escorted from the facility if the result is positive, he said. The men are allowed only 10 days’ shelter, free of charge, every six months, before they must pay $7 a day for accommodations.
The policies are efforts to maintain some type of accountability from the people served by the shelter.
“People have different visions in their head of what they think a homeless person is. The dirty little truth of that is there are a lot of people out there that like to take advantage of the system,” Rogers said.
Reardon noted the same.
A third, unintentional shelter is the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, which processes an average of 50 homeless people a month — at $54 a day — for nonviolent crimes such as remaining after forbidden, vagrancy or petty theft, according to Sheriff’s Office calculations.
One inmate logged 35 arrests in the past 14 years, mostly for misdemeanor offenses, at a publicly funded cost of about $138,000, Reardon said. “We as a system need to address this rather than just accepting it,” he said.
The shelter facility’s looming creation marks the first steps in a long-term plan to declog the criminal justice system of misdemeanor offenders — that’s about 71 percent of people who pass through the parish jail — while simultaneously addressing the issue of homelessness, Reardon said.
More than a dozen downtown Lafayette businesses have contributed an immediate $40,000 toward the facility’s costs, and the Lafayette Police Department also marked $40,000 in its budget for the next fiscal year toward hiring an outreach coordinator. Boudreaux said Catholic Services is interviewing people for the job.
The Lourdes Foundation — the fundraising arm of Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center — also provided $17,000 in immediate funding toward that position, Executive Director Jeigh Stipe said.
In an effort to build relationships with those in need of services, whoever fills the position will establish contact with those on the streets who may not necessarily seek the services on their own. The goal is to know who’s out there — and why — in order to connect them with what they need to get on the right track, Boudreaux said.
Lourdes’ involvement with engaging the homeless population thus far has been focused on the public health aspect. The hospital’s St. Bernadette clinic, in partnership with Catholic Services, provides treatment for the uninsured and underinsured before they seek high-cost emergency-room care for an illness that’s gotten out of hand — another issue that can cost the public more than necessary if not adequately addressed at an earlier stage.
Although there’s been no set date for when the new shelter will open, Boudreaux said her organization is searching for an adequate facility to house the new operation as soon as possible.
“We’re working as fast as we can to get this off the ground,” Boudreaux said, “so these folks can have somewhere to sleep at night.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.