Some of south Louisiana’s homeless are addicted to drugs. Or alcohol. Or are mentally ill. Or suffer from all three maladies.
Others are employed but not making enough to keep a roof over their heads. Still others are entire families, including kids, who were cast out of their last home because of financial strains.
Kreig Lutgring fell into one or more of these categories.
Lutgring was one of Acadiana’s hundreds of homeless residents. He was arrested in March for stealing a pair of $13 sunglasses from a Lafayette convenience store and for resisting arrest when police tried to extract him from a nearby fast-food restaurant’s restroom, where he was shaving with a pair of clippers, according to an arrest report.
The 45-year-old had been arrested before, all on misdemeanor offenses like the $13 theft. None of the petty offenses was ever prosecuted, but he spent plenty of time in jail, including the 52-day stay after his arrest in March.
It turned out to be his last arrest. Lafayette Parish Correctional Center deputies found Lutgring dead in his cell on May 22. A coroner’s report said he died of natural causes.
Perhaps if he had a job, a reliable roof over his head with his own bathroom to shave in and medical treatment, Lutgring’s story might have turned out differently, advocates for the homeless said Friday.
The first thing those without homes need is a home and a job for those who are unemployed, said two executives with the Lafayette-based Catholic Services of Acadiana, a nonprofit with a primary mission of caring for the homeless in south Louisiana.
“There’s folks who have been living on the streets for years and years and years and years. Those are the folks we’re working on,” said Kimberly Boudreaux, executive director of Catholic Services.
Boudreaux and Eric Gammons, director of services for Catholic Services, addressed a group of 70 people at the Lafayette Parish Public Safety Complex. Also there was Rob Reardon, director of the Lafayette Parish jail system, where many of the homeless find themselves locked up for minor offenses, like stealing a pair of sunglasses.
Boudreaux said Catholic Services asks the homeless who show up at their doors — at St. Joseph Diner and Garden, St. Joseph Men’s Shelter and St. Michael Center for Veterans — a set of questions.
The questions, which are the same posed by other agencies across the state to their homeless, help customize the remedies most likely to help a person. Boudreaux calls it triage, a method of screening that separates those who need the most help from those who are temporarily going through a rough patch.
“We have really focused on the end result,” she said.
Gammons said that at last count, there were 473 homeless people in Catholic Services’ eight-parish zone in Louisiana called Acadiana Regional Coalition of Homelessness and Housing, or ARCH. The region is composed of Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary and Vermilion parishes.
Gammons said most of the homeless have migrated to the region’s urban center, the city of Lafayette. And many of those men and women are placed in jail and kept for months after committing petty crimes.
Reardon said incarceration is expensive. He said one homeless man, known well by Lafayette Parish’s penal officials, has been an off-and-on guest of the jail since he was 16. Since 2001, “inmate A,” as he was referred to at the Friday presentation, has been arrested on mostly misdemeanor offenses 35 times for a total of 2,557 days in jail. At $54 a day, Lafayette taxpayers have shelled out $138,078 for his lodging and meals.
“We could buy that guy a house,” Reardon said. “He’s an individual who impacts our system a lot.”
Boudreaux said there are myriad ways people can help the homeless: become an advocate for permanent housing; volunteer at shelters and diners; engage them in conversation; and look them in the eye.
She said people who want to help also can advocate to change laws that essentially criminalize the homeless by jailing those who sleep, hang out, eat or ask for money in public places, such as parks.
Also needing change is the automatic jail time some homeless get for committing minor offenses, like stealing sunglasses.