Homeless problem subject of forum

A panel of local officials heard from several residents Tuesday about ways to solve the growing homeless problem in Calcasieu Parish and listed ideas to address short-term needs.

The forum, hosted by the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury’s Human Services Department, showed the inaccuracies of Point in Time, an annual survey where officials count the homeless population. Last year’s survey showed roughly 50 homeless people in Lake Charles, but several residents said the number was closer to 500 people.

"That’s what I see, too, every day in Lake Charles," said Gordon Levine, Continuum of Care manager for the Louisiana Housing Corporation.

Levine urged those who are homeless to take part in the survey, set for Jan. 28, to get a more accurate count and possibly bring more financial aid to the area over the long term.

"Those numbers are the story that you can tell effectively to the people who are involved in deciding how much money comes here," he said.

Louisiana’s homeless population has dropped every year that the survey has been conducted, but Levine spoke of the difficulty in getting an accurate count. Rising housing costs in the area have led to more people being priced out of the market and experiencing homelessness for the first time.

While officials spoke about the steps in getting long-term assistance, others called for quicker action. Kelli Stawecki, director of the homeless outreach program at Water’s Edge church, said they were feeding 15 people when the program started seven years ago. Today, they are feeding and providing supplies for more than 200 people.

"It’s so out of control right now that if we don’t do something, we’re going to see some huge crisis in this town," she said. "We cannot possibly keep up with what we’re doing. Something has to give."

Stawecki said the program has seen more families that are homeless, but there are no local shelters for families. She said homeless shelters need to be less restrictive so people who don’t qualify aren’t turned away.

"I don’t understand why we can’t have a warming center … to get them out of the cold for the night," Stawecki said. "We can make differences starting with the small things."

District 9 Police Juror Kevin Guidry stressed the need for residents to take part in the Point in Time survey to get an accurate count of the parish’s homeless population.

"This is a very serious situation," he said.

Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Cmdr. James McGee said the forum was a chance to hear public concerns and give deputies direction to help those struggling with homelessness.

Levine said he is working with other state officials to simplify the Point in Time survey, calling the current one too long and complicated.

Several residents offered short-term suggestions to help those suffering from homelessness, including repurposing warehouses and abandoned buildings as shelters. Levine said residents should look to local outlets for help in creating emergency shelters, rather than federal funding.

Others suggested posting flyers advertising the Point in Time survey, and explaining why it is important. Residents also spoke about updating the process to recruit landlords to control the cost of rental properties and making it easier for the homeless to get a picture ID.

Braylon Harris, director of the Impact Agency, said local officials saw the homeless problem long before it arrived, but didn’t take the steps to stop it. He said the city doesn’t lack facilities or money, but rather the boldness of political leaders to take action.””<p><span>Local residents and officials gather Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018 for the Housing and Homeless Crisis Forum, hosted by the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury’s </span><span>Human Services Department.</span></p>John GuidrozCalcasieu Parish Government and Cameron Parish Reporter