Roam through the shelves at ShareHouse in Lafayette and you’ll find a colorful collection of coffee mugs and cookware, cutlery and can openers. Call it: “Not enough.”
That’s because the storeroom, which operates under the Acadiana Regional Council on Homelessness, has more homeless people than supplies, just as there are more homeless people than available homes in the eight-parish region the council serves.
“Systems are all way overwhelmed,” said Leigh Rachal, council executive director, who has done plenty of hands-on work with the homeless since COVID-19 caused congregant shelters to close and designated the homeless council as the agency that would put people in available, affordable housing. Alas, there is too little of that.
Rachal said the homeless council has about 330 households sheltered in hotels in the eight parishes it serves. That includes singles, couples and families.
The shortage of shelter space, tightened because of the thread of COVID-19, is further exacerbated by the evacuees from home destruction caused by Hurricane Laura, which roared through Cameron, Calcasieu and Beauregard parishes before spinning in a northeasterly path through the state.
Compounding that problem is that contractors repairing infrastructure damage from Laura are also housed in hotels here. “No room at the inn” will leave people out in the cold. That means individuals and families are lodging in their own vehicles or elsewhere.
“Hotels can’t provide for anyone else,” Rachal said this week. “Anyone homeless is becoming unsheltered. We’re seeing an increase in that.”
It’s not the fault of the hotels. Rachal said hotels and hotel employees have been welcoming to the homeless and served them well. Service workers, such as hotel clerks, work low-pay jobs and likely show empathy to people who struggle with homelessness.
That includes a chemo patient who sleeps in his vehicle in a hospital parking lot. That includes families who take refuge in their cars in parking spaces that appear to be safe. That includes people who shelter on porches or in sheds, with permission. It includes people who sleep where they can, until residents or business owners call the police and say, “I hate to report this, but. …”
The homeless council and Acadiana Housing Alliance hosted a meeting last week for agencies dealing with homelessness. Reports sounded the same: Too many homeless, not enough shelter.
A report from United Way of Acadiana’s 211 service said some 250 people call every day about COVID-19 or homelessness. They ask about mortgage help, utilities assistance, affordable housing.
Acadiana Legal Services said they’re dealing with evictions from rental problems, despite stated protections for those who can’t pay rent. But too many people are evicted and can’t afford to appeal rulings from justice of the peace courts.
Catholic Charities of Acadiana said it has paid out some $94,000 in assistance for rent and utilities but requests keep coming.
Melinda Taylor, of Habitat for Humanity, said the paucity of available, affordable housing is encouraging what seems to be a “gridlock” in helping the homeless. What’s the answer?
Rachal said that outreach groups will try for an accurate count of area homeless people next week, part of a wider effort to ascertain how many people are facing life on the streets. She said the effort will focus on Lafayette and include a survey of people who are unsheltered or seen panhandling.
“We need to get a sense of the population’s needs,” she said.
The homeless council did a “point in time” count Jan. 27 and determined there were 420 homeless people in the area. Rachal said those survey results are out the window now. COVID and the calamity in Cameron and Calcasieu changed all that.
So those doing the count will scour the streets and survey the soup kitchens, seeking as hard a count as possible. She said the number of homeless in the area may bump up to about 600. A good count is a starting point.
There is more for which to hope. One goal is to keep homelessness from getting worse. That means rural courts must recognize the protections in place for those who can’t make rent.
Aid for rent must be scaled to what people need, Rachal said. And keep in mind that an enormous bill will come due in January for those who’ve gotten extra time to pay rent. By the end of the first quarter of 2021, she said, the state’s bill for stabilizing homelessness may be $200 million a month.
Rachal said helping the homeless will require more options. Housing people in hotels is expensive, but affordable housing — $600 or $700 a month — is scarce. “We have to ID or build affordable housing,” she said, and “we need it six months ago.”
Finding an affordable place is one part of the problem, Mary Prichard, who operates ShareHouse, said. Stocking it with linens, dishes and furniture is another matter.
Those referred to her storage area must be referred by agencies that deal with the homeless, but more goods are needed to help those moving into shelter: beds, couches, chairs, cooking utensils.
“If I got 50 new pillows in here, I’d been in heaven,” she said. Everyone wants a fresh pillow. Can openers — those would help, too.
She said people who can help by donating time and goods should call her at (337) 962-5257.
She said ShareHouse is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Acadiana Business Today: No room at the inn: Area agencies grapple with shortage of affordable housing
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