Helping homeless a lot harder after storms

Published 9:09 pm Tuesday, January 26, 2021

John Guidroz

 Tracking those in Calcasieu Parish who have struggled with homelessness has been a challenge for local agencies because the population remains scattered since Hurricanes Laura and Delta. Meanwhile, the agencies want to make sure residents who are working, but struggling to afford daily expenses, don’t end up newly homeless.

Robert Swain Jr. went from working in sanitation at Market Basket, to selling discarded scrap metal and wooden pallets after the hurricanes, Denise Durel, United Way of Southwest Louisiana president/CEO, said Friday. The United Way is paying Swain’s $400 monthly rent through March, when the store is set to reopen.

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The United Way also helped Swain sign up for unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. She said residents who were gainfully employed before the hurricanes may not be aware of certain resources after a major disaster.

“A lot of times, people just know how to work,” Durel said. “We’re finding so many people like (Swain) that are in this unusual situation and don’t know what to do or how to do it.”

Residents whose homes were severely damaged by the storms are having a hard time finding affordable housing in the area, Durel said.

“There’s really no place to go,” she said. “They’re doing the best they can. Some are fortunate enough to have a camper or family to stay with.”

Tarek Polite, Calcasieu Parish Human Services director, said some residents end up sleeping in their cars to make ends meet.

The hurricanes have made it difficult to determine which organizations are providing services, Polite said.

“We don’t know who’s open and who’s not,” he said. “There are probably more organizations that are not currently providing resources than we are.”

Several agencies, including the Salvation Army of Lake Charles and Oasis, a shelter for abused women and their children, have remained closed since the storms, Durel said. The Welcome House in Crowley, the closest shelter for families, is also closed, leaving Houston as the nearest location.

“We are in an unusual situation,” she said. “Sheltering people in this community is a challenge.”

Agencies that are providing services should email so they can be placed in a database, Polite said. Durel said the United Way staff researches the agencies to ensure they are trustworthy before putting them in the database. Residents seeking resources should call 211.

Residents who are paying to stay in local hotels can’t receive federal assistance because they don’t meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homeless, Polite said.

“An agency or church or faith-based organization would have to be paying for that particular hotel stay,” he said.

Polite said the Human Services department continues to use the first round of CARES Act allocations to provide rental and mortgage assistance. Laura and Delta put that process behind “almost 2-3 months,” he said.

The parish had placed roughly 50 chronically homeless at the Sunrise Inn on U.S. 90 from May 22 until Laura’s Aug. 27 landfall, Polite said. The statewide effort was set up to protect the homeless population from COVID-19, while also providing them with meals, laundry service and case management to get them into more permanent housing. The program was funded through the initial CARES Act allocation.

Laura’s landfall relocated many of the homeless to various hotels throughout the state. Tracking their whereabouts since the storms has been challenging, he said.

“For many of them, a lot of the agencies and resources they counted on, they’re not operating,” Polite said. “If they ended up in a hotel in New Orleans, we just assume when those services ended, they just stayed there.”

Polite said the department will still help residents who took part in the program and were in the process of transitioning into more permanent housing.

“If we locate them, we will still honor that commitment,” he said.

Point in Time, an annual survey of the homeless population, typically happens in January. However, those not staying in shelters will not be counted this year because of COVID-19.

Those in shelters will still be counted. However, getting an accurate count will be difficult, Polite said. Most area shelters closed after the hurricanes or were not operating because of concerns with COVID-19, Polite said.


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United Way of Southwest Louisiana President and CEO Denise Durel said the organization is paying Robert Swain Jr.’s $400 monthly rent through March, when his job working in sanitation at Market Basket is set to resume.