Nine months after Hurricane Ida beat a brutal path through Louisiana, hundreds of people in the state’s Florida parishes still haven’t been able to find homes.
The Northlake Homeless Coalition recently counted 611 people who are homeless in the region, which includes Livingston, St. Helena, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington Parishes. That’s dramatically more than in previous years.
Of those, about 400 of them were staying in FEMA-subsidized motels and hotels because of the storm’s devastation last August.
“These people still haven’t been able to locate a permanent housing solution,” said Amanda Stapleton, the organization’s executive director. “The housing stock is so diminished and housing is so competitive, it’s virtually impossible.”
Even if her team is able to shepherd people through the housing process and they are accepted, there is no guarantee a home will be available, Stapleton said. And getting people to leave their parish to find better housing opportunities elsewhere is often met with pushback.
“I am very concerned that the 406 people in the FEMA hotels are, at some point, going to enter our homeless system — and are, at some point, not going to make it back,” Stapleton said.
When volunteers fanned out across the parishes on the night of Feb. 21 to record the area’s homeless, it was the first Point in Time Count for Northlake since the start of the coronavirus pandemic (a partial count in 2021 didn’t include unsheltered people).
The “PIT Count” is generally an annual event held in January to tally the number of homeless people in different places across the country. While the count has its gaps, such as difficulty counting unaccompanied minors, it is currently the most reliable way to measure whether homelessness is growing or shrinking, advocates say.
Stapleton added that Northlake providers saw 711 adults and 327 children pass through the homeless system in 2021 — a more holistic number beyond the one-night count.
Still, her team has never seen a PIT Count total this high for the area; the prior record was 379 people in 2009. Even removing those using FEMA motel vouchers from the equation, there has still been about a 74% increase between 2020 and 2022’s count, Stapleton said.
“[The numbers] are not surprising,” she said. “But it is shocking.”
Few places to turn
The largely rural parishes clustered at the tip of the state’s boot lack many of the resources found in urban centers like Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Even as the population increases in parishes such as Livingston, the number of shelters and homelessness services has not kept pace with the rapid growth.
An online search for shelters in the region yields mostly disconnected numbers and websites that are no longer active.
Northlake seeks to connect the few providers available so people can get help — though there are still places where it’s hard to find any help at all.
Hurricane Ida dealt a particularly hard blow to Tangipahoa Parish, where services for homeless people are already sparse.
At Quad Vets, a nonprofit transitional veterans’ home based in Hammond, a building used for such housing was destroyed in the hurricane. There are similar issues for domestic violence survivors, who make up 15% of the homeless system in the region.
Southeast Advocates for Family Empowerment (SAFE), the domestic violence provider for four out of five parishes in Northlake’s coverage area, lost the hotel they used for non-congregate shelter during the storm. Some apartments reserved for emergency placement were damaged as well.
Compounding the issue is a lack of public transportation. Recently a provider trying to get help for a domestic violence victim in Folsom could not find a ride-share service or cab that would travel that far, Stapleton said. A street outreach team eventually made it out on their own, but it took four days — a critical stretch when someone is experiencing abuse.
No roof over your head
The number of unsheltered people — those actually living on the streets — has also risen, Stapleton pointed out.
Of the 205 people not staying in FEMA motels, 90 are unsheltered and the remainder are in either emergency shelters or temporary housing.
“We are in desperate need of an emergency shelter solution, and that’s evidenced by the increase in the unsheltered count,” she said. “We’re advocating for a one-stop situation in Hammond that would combine non-congregate shelter with one place people could come for assistance.”
Since the hurricane, Northlake has fielded an influx of desperate calls as people have sought assistance. But with COVID-specific emergency funds set to expire in the coming months, Stapleton worries the numbers are only going to grow.
“With many people with Ida, this is the third time in five years they’re being flooded out,” she said. “At some point resilience and sustainability become a huge factor.”
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