FILE: Air mattresses, sheets, towels, food and other items were donated to the Waters Edge Gathering church in Lake Charles. The church opened its doors to the homeless Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019 due to the cold weather. (Rick Hickman/Lake Charles American Press)

The Path Home is a new initiative that combines several local agencies to solve the growing homeless problem in Southwest Louisiana.

Local officials discussed the effort on Tuesday, which partners the city of Lake Charles, United Way of Southwest Louisiana, Lake Charles Police, Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office and Calcasieu Police Jury. A new website, thepathhomeswla.org, lets residents sign up for volunteer efforts, donate money and learn more about homelessness in Southwest Louisiana.

Mayor Nic Hunter acknowledged the effort will not completely erase homelessness, but it is a step in the right direction. Along with local government, he called on other organizations, such as non-profits, faith-based, corporate and philanthropic, to take action.

"We realize that more can and must be done to assist our homeless brothers and sisters," he said. "To do nothing is not an option."

Calcasieu Police Jury Vice President Shelly Mayo said the homeless population has become more evident in the area over the last several years.

Denise Durel, United Way SWLA president and CEO, said Southwest Louisiana has no shelter for homeless families. The closest shelters are in Crowley and Houston.

Nearly 930 students in Southwest Louisiana are considered homeless, Durel said.

Tarek Polite, Calcasieu Police Jury Human Services director, spoke about ways to improve the accuracy of Point in Time, an annual count of the homeless population. The survey is conducted on the fourth Monday in January, and the results determine how much federal funding an area receives to combat homelessness.

Results from this year's count are complete, but unofficial, and won't be released until the end of April, Polite said. This year, a center was opened the day before the survey to get more accurate numbers.

Another new effort is the Southwest Louisiana Committee to Address Homelessness. Members include Alisa Stevens, John O'Donnell, Pearl Cole, Jean Mount Kamla and Alberto Maxwell. Polite said the steering committee will provide guidance, set priorities and accountability for local, state and federal resources tasked with fighting homelessness in the region. He said work groups will meet with the committee in May.

Hunter thanked Waters Edge Church for its efforts to help the homeless, including opening an emergency shelter during extreme weather. The shelter is a partnership with the church, the city, sheriff's office and Lake Charles police.

"They have been absolute angels on Earth," Hunter said.

Durel also mentioned 211, an information and referral service funded by the United Way of SWLA. She said more than 13,000 calls are received annually, with housing being the top need.

Brochures will be given to law enforcement and local churches that list the available shelters, food pantries, clothing, personal hygiene and other services.

To volunteer with The Path Home or make a donation, call the United Way of SWLA at 433-1088. All of the donations will be used for local programs designed to help the homeless, Durel said.

Online: thepathhomeswla.org

Calcasieu Parish Government and Cameron Parish Reporter

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