Lafayette grappling with issue of homelessness downtown

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Lafayette's imposing federal courthouse looms over the sparsely trafficked Parc Putnam, where a handful of people each day and night make beds out of benches.

A few blocks away at Parc Sans Souci, where weekenders sip mimosas outside a popular brunch spot, vagrants crawl from sleeping bags on the same public stage that hosted a Downtown Alive! act the night before. Lafayette's homeless have become as much a fixture downtown as business professionals, bohemians, late-night barhoppers and inmate workers. But as the number of people sleeping in the streets has grown in recent months, city officials are actively discussing how to deal with them.

"What the long-term hope is for us is that through a joint venture, we'll be able to secure somebody who will be dealing with how to rehouse a lot of these people," Downtown Development Authority CEO Nathan Norris said. "That's the least expensive and most effective way we can deal with the homeless in our community."

It's a common theme among an evolving public opinion on how to handle homelessness: It costs taxpayers more to manage the problem than to end it by finding permanent housing for the chronically homeless.

The idea is that once the homeless are housed, they can more effectively resolve the issues contributing to their chronic homelessness, whether it's finding employment and affordable housing, overcoming an addiction or managing a mental disability.

"Sure enough, research shows it works," said Leigh Petersen Rachal, director of St. Joseph Diner and the Stella Maris Center with Catholic Services of Acadiana.

The organization provides breakfast, lunch, and shower and laundry services daily for anyone in need. It also provides shelter for up to 32 men and 20 veterans each night in Lafayette. Up to 52 women and their children seeking emergency shelter through Catholic Services are shuttled to its New Life center in Opelousas. A program derived from those services involves finding permanent housing for the homeless. From October to December, 143 people were placed into permanent homes through the organization. That's about a third of the 471 homeless people counted in 2014 among Lafayette and the seven surrounding Acadiana parishes, according the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We don't just want to manage their situation of homelessness. We want to get them housing," Rachal said.

Although the conversation rethinking how to solve homelessness is still on the fringes of public awareness in Lafayette, the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee has begun collecting data on the issue as part of its efforts to improve efficiency in the Lafayette Parish jail — where it costs taxpayers $54 a day to house a single inmate, Executive Director Holly Howat said.

The committee, which includes representatives from Lafayette's government, school, judicial and law enforcement sectors, learned that about 50 homeless people are processed through the jail each month for nonviolent crimes like remaining after forbidden and petty theft, Howat said.

The overlooked costs of jailing some offenders was recounted at a March presentation by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office, during which Corrections Director Rob Reardon gave an account of a homeless inmate jailed for stealing $7 worth of orange juice. The man — who was on suicide watch, suffered from disabling mental illness and demanded daily attention from the jail's mental health and medical staff — ultimately cost taxpayers about $10,000 for the month he was in jail before he was eventually released back onto the streets, Reardon said.

Norris said a coordinator is needed to seek out these individuals before they end up in the hospital or in jail.

"If we can engage them and rehouse them, the cost is smaller for the overall community," Norris said.

In the meantime, a new set of rules in downtown's public parks is serving as a passive way to discourage the homeless from bedding down there.

Those five rules — listed on new metal signs hung Friday in Parc Sans Souci, Parc de Lafayette and Parc Putnam — include no glass containers, no sleeping or camping, no smoking, no motorized vehicles and securing a permit for any event. The rules aren't tied to any city ordinance but were posted as a way to better enforce what goes on in the public parks, Norris said.

The rules come at a time when funding for the Lafayette Police Department's downtown police detail is dwindling and when the department's annual "Summer Heat" operation — which places more officers on downtown streets each summer — is on hold for the second year in a row because of budget constraints. The DDA and Catholic Services have proposed hiring an outreach coordinator. That person would become the missing link to ensuring the vulnerable homeless are rehoused — and not just in emergency rooms, jails or shelters — instead of waiting for those in need to seek out services on their own.

"As a region, we are moving in that direction pretty successfully," Rachal said. "The cause for homelessness is that they don't have a house. The solution for that is to get them a house."


Information from: The Advocate,