Monsignor Sigur Center offers new approach to homeless in Acadiana

Hundreds of thousands of homeless people across the country spend their nights in boxes, under bridges and on park benches — a problem that also has long plagued Acadiana.

One traditional approach has been having the homeless attend classes on budgeting, offering them job training and substance abuse treatment, then sending them out to find a job and a home on their own.

The Lafayette Catholic Services Center’s Monsignor Sigur Center is trying a new approach: house them first, then rehabilitate.

“The idea is to put them in housing and then provide the services and try to stabilize them once they’re in a safe place,” said Kim Boudreaux, Catholic Services Centers executive director. “Nationally, the research has shown that people are more motivated to seek sobriety and to seek a better lifestyle once they are housed.”

Using this new approach and a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the center has worked with area landlords and apartment complex managers to house hundreds of homeless people in the Acadiana region in partnership with the 100,000 Homes Campaign. With the center’s help, the nationwide campaign reached its four-year goal of turning 100,000 of the homeless into homeowners.

“The 100K Homes campaign inspired us to think we can end homelessness,” Sigur Center Director Autumn delaHoussaye said. “They really led the national discussion, like, ‘Let’s talk about ending it.’ That had never happened before.”

Since 1972, the Lafayette Catholic Services Center has been operating programs providing for the basic needs of people living on the streets of Acadiana. The center provides them with food, shelter and clothing.

“We’d done a good job responding to the Gospel calls to feed the hungry and give them shelter,” Boudreaux said. “However, we really began reflecting, if we truly cared about the homeless, then we care about their futures, and we care about who they are and where they sleep at night.”

With the old system, she said, many homeless people weren’t able to transition to complete independence after the shelters finished attempting to rehabilitate them and were often found back on the street.

“We really changed the focus of our organization not to just manage homelessness but to really address homelessness at its cause,” Boudreaux said. “We looked at which programs nationally are doing the best jobs and which would work well in Lafayette. That’s when we were introduced to the 100,000 Homes Campaign.”

The paradigm shift seems to be working.

The center has housed 871 homeless people in two years.

There will always be people forced out on the streets, but the difference now is that there’s a working system to put people back under a roof of their own, Boudreaux said.

“We can’t prevent homelessness, but we have a system in place in our community that works,” she said. “When someone becomes homeless, we have a way to get them back into housing, so they don’t experience long durations of homelessness, like many of the men and women that are on our streets today.”

Once workers with the Sigur Center determine how much a homeless person can contribute to pay for housing, the center uses a survey tool developed by 100K Homes called the Vulnerability Index. The index evaluates each client’s mental and physical illnesses to identify which clients need to be housed immediately.

“It’s kind of like an emergency room,” Boudreaux said. “When you go into an emergency room and you’ve got somebody who is sitting there that has a cold and then someone comes in with a heart attack, you take the heart attack victim first.”

This person-specific approach allows community programs to tailor help to the needs of their homeless clients to get them off the streets quickly and effectively, delaHoussaye said.

“Oftentimes, in their life, they’ve experienced some type of trauma, have possibly developed mental illnesses or substance abuse and have a distrust of institutions,” she said. “By knowing these folks by name, and making sure they know us by name, we can get to the place where they trust us enough to move into a home.”

The cases delaHoussaye and her staff handle vary in degree of severity, she said.

“Some people are employed, they live in the shelter, they have a savings and they just need a little bit of help in navigating a lease and landlord negotiations,” she said. “Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: possibly lower-functioning, seriously mentally ill folks that live in places not fit for human habitation.”

Some live under bridges, in cars, in boxes.

“Living on the streets is hard,” Boudreaux said. “I don’t know if I could survive it. It’s hard to say, ‘hey, stay sober,’ when you’re living in such terrible conditions.”

Lafayette resident Otis Pace was recently housed through the program after living on the city’s streets for a year.

Pace said he contacted the center about five months ago.

“When they helped me, it really came from their heart,” he said. “It was kind of slow, but everybody stuck with me and they still are right now.”

Pace has been living at the Housing Authority of Lafayette for about a month now, and he said the center helps with expenses and making sure he stays committed to keeping a roof over his head.

“They keep tabs on me,” he said. “Anything I need, I can go get from them.”

As for his new digs, Pace seemed very content.

“It feels great,” Pace said. “After a year of being homeless, it’s just like paradise.”

That feeling of paradise seems to be commonplace among the center’s clients upon moving into their own homes after years — decades for some — of dwelling on the streets.

“The best feedback we get is from our clients on move-in day,” delaHoussaye said. “Some of our clients, when we help them move into their home, they fall on their knees and thank God for having a home.”