More on Homelessness
Although Louisiana's 12,500 homeless represent a fraction of the state population, the number of homeless people skyrocketed by 111% from 2008 to 2009. That was the largest jump of any state, according to a 2011 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Homeless Research Institute, making it a dilemma that warrants closer attention.
Baton Rouge has 955 known residents without permanent housing. However, Randy Nichols, executive director of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless (CAAH), knows the figure is an undercount. U.S. Census survey information is voluntary, which makes an accurate count virtually impossible.
Randy Nichols of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless estimates Baton Rouge has more than 900 homeless people at any given time.
Of nearly 1,000 homeless people counted in the 2010 Census, 147 belonged to "households with dependent children," a group that has many resources readily available to quickly relocate families looking for permanent residence.
The homeless are categorized into subpopulations. For example, 118 chronically homeless people reside in Baton Rouge, meaning they have either lived on the street or in a shelter four or more times in the past three years. And from these figures, one can interpret that most cases of homelessness are only temporary, since another nearly 900 homeless appear in the census count.
Nearly half of Baton Rouge's homeless suffer from substance abuse.
"They'll say 'I can't just take one drink, or I can't get off my medication,' but understanding the illness or problem is one of the biggest issues," says CAAH's Nichols. Substance abuse is far from the sole contributor to homelessness. Roughly 100 homeless people in Baton Rouge suffer from HIV/AIDS, another 100 are victims of domestic violence and nearly 50 more are homeless military veterans. But an even larger category, numbering 220, includes those who suffer from mental illness.
Baton Rouge has about 350 permanent homeless spots, 600 transitional slots and yet another 220 to 275 emergency homeless locations available, Nichols says. That means the city can harbor more than 1,000 homeless individuals without straining the system.
Agencies divvy up and classify the homeless by category because there are varying funds and grants available to help the homeless. For example, funds are set aside specifically for those suffering with HIV/AIDS, mental illness or substance abuse. In Baton Rouge, temporary or permanent housing exists for each of these categories and more.
The O'Brien House, for example, serves recovering alcoholics and substance abusers. The Women's Community Rehabilitation Center takes care of women suffering from domestic violence, while Youth Oasis helps children 18 and under.
CAAH consists of about 50 agencies serving the homeless with different needs in the Capital Area, including Ascension, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes.
There also are various kinds of employment assistance. Programs range from GED computer courses to money management to parenting instruction. Although many homeless people end up in the food service industry, Nichols says instruction agencies try to learn their clients' personal interests and guide them into appropriate fields.
The O'Brien House actually started a landscaping company specifically for those completing its substance abuse program. Upon finishing an online training course, patients can find their way back into society, hopefully toward a self-sufficient life.
"Churches were probably the first [organizations] to address homelessness," says Nichols. "They are partnering with homeless service providers for things for which they lack the expertise or resources.
Homelessness in its modern form began in the early to mid-1980s, Nichols says, when an economic recession hit. It was small compared to the current national financial crunch, but it still struck many citizens suddenly, leaving them jobless. This caused many people to hit the streets in search of a job by day, but left some without residence by night.
In turn, this led to the start of emergency shelters, where anyone could grab a meal and a shower but had to go back onto the street at nightfall. Mental health wards also were beginning to turn patients onto the streets, directly increasing homelessness.
In 1987, U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney, a Connecticut Republican, co-sponsored and pushed through Congress the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the first significant federal funding program for the homeless. It wasn't long before organizations realized temporary housing was not solving the problem-it only provided a quick fix for people with much larger, deeper problems. Thus began the chapter of rapid re-housing, attempting to send those in need through well-suited programs and getting them on their way to self-sustaining lives.
Baton Rouge now has a one-stop services center for the homeless; the Homeless Services Center, located at 153 N. 17th Street. The facility integrates the various services available to the homeless, Nichols says.
The first floor will offer day center services such as showers, laundry, telephone and mail, as well as employment assistance and HIV/AIDS rapid testing. The center also offers outreach case management, primary medical, pharmacy and dental health care and life skills training.
The second and third floors feature 36 single sleeping units.
The 33,000-square-foot building will have an annual operating budget of roughly $1.67 million, covered mostly through federal grants.
"The goal is to end homelessness in Baton Rouge," Nichols says. "You need affordable [housing] units, or at least temporary, if not long-term, rental subsidies, and a final piece for wrap-around supportive services."
Nichols estimates the chronically homeless, who make up about 10% of homeless nationwide and in Baton Rouge, use roughly half the money and other resources allocated to homeless aid. Homeless people are not always the easiest to work with, Nichols says, but "everybody's got to be somewhere."
Vision realized for homeless
The seven-year dream of 35 nonprofit agencies that make up the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless has come true with the One Stop Homeless Services Center at 153 N. 17th St.
The 34,000-square-foot, $8.4 million facility offers a full range of support services including outreach case management; primary medical, pharmacy and dental care; life skills training; employment assistance; mental health screening; HIV/AIDS rapid testing; day center services; and legal services.
It’s the alliance’s hope that the homeless community will be better served if providers are in one easily accessible location.
“We are trying to do something different here,” said Randy Nichols, executive director of CAAH. “The center marks not only a new level of agency collaboration but also an expansion of services available to homeless persons.”
Elvin Smith is one of the center’s first clients. “I come here every day,” he said. “I watch the news, get my coffee, get the day started out.”
He takes a daily shower at the center. Once a week he does his laundry.
Bridget Scott is program supervisor of homeless services for Volunteers of America, which moved its Drop In Center from Florida Boulevard to the new facility. She runs the Drop In Center.
“Clients come in from 8 to 3. They take showers, check their mail, use the phone and computers, do their laundry,” Scott said. “It’s a place to get off the street for the day, somewhere to sit and be safe.”
The new Drop In Center can serve about 100 clients, more than the 80 or so who dropped in each day at the old center. After the center closes each afternoon, Smith said he “just finds a place” to sleep.
Once a week, he can get a voucher to spend the night in a Salvation Army shelter. If he goes to church on Sunday, he gets a voucher for a second night.
Smith said he’s happy to have the center.
“It’s a tremendous asset to this area for people who just by chance of luck are in need,” he said.
“It’s a place they can come to get caught up on what’s happening around.”
Drop In is a gathering place for the homeless, but the center is much more.
Clients can receive medical services from a physician with the Baton Rouge Primary Care Collaborative, which operates a wing in the building. There are dental services. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge is running a behavioral health wing. Attorney Janice McAlpine volunteers as legal services director, assisted by two students from LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center.
Other partners providing services include UpLIFTD, Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, Women’s Community Rehabilitation Center, O’Brien House, Healing Place Serve, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the LSU Department of Psychology.
The One Stop building was paid for with low-income housing tax credits and other public funds. The project is a collaboration of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Baton Rouge and nonprofit developer Gulf Coast Housing Partnership.
“A variety of funding sources helped us get it open,” Nichols said. These include the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and foundation donor-advised funds, the Credit Bureau of Baton Rouge, the E.J. and Margery B. Ourso Foundation, the Huey and Angelina Wilson Foundation, East Baton Rouge Mortgage Finance Authority, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation and the Walmart Foundation State Giving Program.
Katie Underwood is a social worker overseeing service provision in the building. “There are 46 service providers in the entire network,” she said. “We are working to develop a client-centered approach to move the clients from homelessness and to provide the services they need. The goal is to make sure that everybody has what they need, but the long-term goal is to get independence.”
Nichols said that his organization serves between 800 and 1,000 clients a year. “Our goal is moving them to housing,” he said.
One Stop has 36 units of permanent supportive housing on the second and third floors of the building. “The rents are set to be affordable,” Nichols said.
To live in the building, a client must make less than 30 percent of annual median income for the Baton Rouge area. Annual median income divides the income distribution in an area into two equal parts with one-half of the incomes falling below the median and the other half being above the median. The annual median income for an individual in this area is $35,000.
“People cannot make over $13,000 per year to live here,” Nichols said. Most clients make far less. Rentals are based on the income of the tenant.
Matthew Hayes is the VOA program director for Housing and Homeless Services. He recently moved from New York. He finds the new building especially friendly for clients.
“I love the bright colors, all the windows and natural light,” he said. “You think of a drop-in center as cold and dark, but that is what this is not.”
Nichols, an ordained Methodist minister, said he has always been interested in poverty and social justice issues. In 2004, the Homeless Alliance was looking to hire its first staff person when “I was kind of in transition,” he said. “It was fortuitous.” He has been working toward getting a One Stop Center since he came on-board.
“We are trying to rehouse the people who are sleeping on benches, pushing shopping carts and carrying grocery bags,” he said.