Homeless encampment  (copy)

Donations are being sought to help outfit apartments for homeless people in Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge is planning to send teams of behavioral health specialists to panhandling hotspots and encampments throughout the city in hopes of getting homeless people help.

The Behavioral Health Homelessness Outreach Team — "HOT Team" for short — is scheduled to roll out by the end of October or early November.

Two teams, each led by a different behavioral health specialist and partnering with either the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office or the Baton Rouge Police Department, will travel to several locations throughout the parish each week to make contact with homeless people and panhandlers.

"Homelessness itself is a mental health issue," said Jeremy Blunt, a behavioral health professional and founder of the organization Stitches 4 Life. "Being homeless itself is a trauma. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from, where you’re going to sleep at night."

Blunt will head one team, and Capital Area Human Services will lead the other.

The designated hotspots include Siegen Lane at the interstate, North and South Rieger Road, Industriplex Boulevard and Bluebonnet Boulevard, among others. 

"[The teams] canvass the areas we are aware of and reach out on an individual basis," said Mark Armstrong, spokesperson with the mayor's office. "We’re showing them the help is here."

While the administration's endgame is eventually to transition all homeless people into housing, Armstrong said they recognize people have other needs beyond a place to live. 

A recent survey of Baton Rouge's homeless population found that around 80% are suffering from some form of mental illness or drug addiction, according to data the mayor's office reported in February

The HOT Team will be one of many resources already available for people struggling with homelessness across the parish, joining a coalition of providers, advocates and faith groups that service the region. They hope to build trust, which can be difficult to earn with people who have drifted to the margins of society.

Similar outreach models have been replicated at local levels in states like California, Colorado and Florida.

Police officers will accompany the behavioral health specialists primarily for security purposes, Armstrong said. Both the officers and behavioral health specialists are receiving special training before entering the field. 

"The idea is to create a safe place to go out there and do their mental health work," he said. "It’s all about making connections with these folks."

While many of the city's homelessness providers have lauded the initiative, others have voiced concern over the administration's past handling of encampments and the presence of law enforcement on the teams.

“You walk back into an encampment with a cop and a clipboard, you’re not building relationships,” said Ed Doyle, leader of a street ministry called Church Under a Tree.

It has been more than a year since city officials moved people experiencing homelessness into motels to protect them during the pandemic.

That move, "for a brief moment," almost served to eradicate unsheltered homelessness in the city-parish, according to Weston Schild, executive director of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless One Stop Services Center. 

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However, several established encampments in the parish were cleared out while people stayed in the motels. That left some homeless people sidelined and forced from their makeshift community, they told The Advocate last year

Doyle says many homeless people have not forgotten that upheaval and are loathe to trust both law enforcement and the city-parish, even if offered help: "They’ve seen this movie before."

Schild said the HOT Team sounds like a "reasonable" step forward, and he hopes it will mesh well with other parish-wide outreach efforts. But he also expressed concern about how encampments were cleared in the past. 

He underscored the need to develop ongoing contact with homeless people to foster strong relationships, from all outreach teams in the parish. 

"They may have been burnt by law enforcement before or the homeless system before. It’s building that trust, and we simply need some time to work with folks," he said. "That doesn’t necessarily make constituents very happy or the mayor’s office very happy. But it’s simply what’s needed."  

Armstrong stressed that the HOT Teams are not designed to clear encampments, but rather to put mental health professionals in a place to interact with homeless people and people who have resorted to panhandling to create long term, authentic connections. 

Encampments will only be cleaned if and when everyone has been transitioned into housing — what he called the "healthiest" option for all involved.

"We live in reality on this. We know it’s a challenging population," he said. "This is how you make a difference — being intentional about meeting the underlying causes of why they’re panhandling or experiencing homelessness instead of moving people around the community to another location."

Blunt, who heads one of the teams, admitted he was not wild about including law enforcement in early discussions of the initiative. But he eventually realized the value of bringing officers on outreach trips.

"One of the things we found is they encounter [homeless individuals] a whole lot more than we do," he said. "The structure of this was all about rapport — building rapport is essential. That is essential to overcoming the stigma of law enforcement."

The administration will introduce the HOT Teams during a critical time for homelessness in the city-parish. Michael Acaldo, CEO and president of St. Vincent de Paul Charities, said unsheltered homelessness is "a growing problem."

"I think with the eviction moratorium being lifted that you will see more situations of homelessness," he said. "In hurricanes...that put people out of their homes or apartments for damage, whether it’s miles down the road or right here in Baton Rouge, it has its impact. Louisiana just keeps getting battered."

Ideally, the HOT Teams will contribute to the measures already in place to help people find the resources they need, Acaldo said.

"The more we focus on trying to end homelessness, the better the community, state and country is," Acaldo said. "It’s going to take a total approach to do that. It takes everybody working together."

Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com