The latest tally of people living in Baton Rouge’s shelters and on the streets shows the homeless population has been more than halved since it peaked seven years ago, and nonprofit leaders say they are cautiously optimistic about the decline.
The number of homeless people in Baton Rouge has been ticking downward since it peaked in 2009, with 1,118 people who were counted during a “point-in-time” survey one night in January. This year, the number fell to 472 people who were counted as homeless in the newly released survey.
Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless Executive Director Randy Nichols said he has noticed the trend at the One Stop Homeless Services Center on North 17th Street, where many homeless and formerly homeless people spend their days. But despite the progress, he said finding housing for people is only one step of the equation and that case management and access to affordable housing are areas that still need more investment in Baton Rouge.
“We could go to the day room now, and we could find people who were homeless but are now rehoused who still come back here for support services,” Nichols said from his office in One Stop.
The homeless point-in-time survey is conducted in January annually and counts the number of homeless people both at shelters and on the streets for one night.
The total number of homeless people fell by about 22 percent between 2015 and 2016, with the homeless men population dropping by 23 percent and the number of homeless women down by about 18 percent.
But Society of St. Vincent de Paul Chief Executive Officer Michael Acaldo said not all of the numbers — particularly those for women and children — are representative of what he sees on a daily basis. The female homeless population in Baton Rouge exceeds the number of beds available on any given night, and Acaldo said women and children are also more likely to be able to stay with family and friends instead of at shelters.
“Sometimes, our case managers, we’ll talk with family and friends and say, ‘We think we’re moving a mother and her family out to rehousing; it’s going to be a day or two. Could you just let her stay there another day or two?’” Acaldo said. “We’re doing a lot of that, because we’re full.”
St. Vincent de Paul is hoping to break ground in August on an expansion that will nearly double the size of their Bishop Ott Sweet Dreams Shelter for Women and Children. Acaldo said they hope to have the expansion complete by next summer.
He said a high percentage of the homeless are mentally ill, disabled or older people. And St. Vincent de Paul’s dining room also served a record number of visitors last year, he noted.
“That’s an indication that the numbers are still high,” Acaldo said.
He said he has noticed, though, that St. Vincent de Paul’s Bishop Ott Men’s Shelter has been between about 85 percent full and 90 percent full, whereas it was more than 100 percent full in the past.
Both Nichols and Acaldo attributed the drop in overall homeless to a handful of successful programs at different levels of government and in the nonprofit sector. Nichols said a push from Mayor-President Kip Holden to end veterans’ homelessness found permanent shelter for 139 homeless veterans between September 2014 and November 2015.
Acaldo applauded the Louisiana Housing Corporation’s homelessness prevention program and rapid rehousing assistance programs, which are aimed at either keeping people from becoming homeless or quickly providing assistance once a family loses housing.
Nichols also said the state’s expansion of Medicaid, the federal government’s insurance program for the poor, which will begin this year, also should help to cover more medical costs and possible case management for the poor and homeless.
To keep numbers of homeless people declining in the future, Nichols said the lack of affordable housing in Baton Rouge will need to be addressed. On the individual level, he said homeless people need case management, rental subsidies and income to thrive.
Nichols also said the state and the city-parish needs more public policies that commit to ending homelessness. He pointed to the Louisiana Housing Trust Fund, intended to create housing for people who are homeless, low-income, disabled or low- to moderate-income, which does not have the money it needs.
He stressed that homelessness affects the whole community from both quality of life and monetary standpoints. Those range from homeless people sleeping on streets to homeless people not being able to pay emergency room bills that are then borne by hospitals.
“There are really solid benefits to ending homelessness,” Nichols said.
Acaldo also emphasized the benefits of the nonprofit and the public sector working together, and he said the collaborative, all-hands-on-deck approach is what’s needed to keep the downward trend of homelessness going.
“What’s ultimately going to be the solution?” Acaldo said. “You and I and everyone else in the community need to look in the mirror. That’s the solution.”