By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

As executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Michael Acaldo directs the agency providing shelter to highest percentage of the homeless population in the Baton Rouge area.

So concern was his first reaction when he learned of the random murder of a homeless couple in Baton Rouge, not far from the St. Vincent campus.

His concern was heightened when a third homeless person was murdered two weeks later and police were able to determine the murders were connected.

“We’ve never seen anything like that,” Acaldo said. “We were concerned for those that we are blessed to serve. Just didn’t make any sense.

“And we immediately felt a sense of urgency to try to get as many people off the street as possible.”

The first murders occurred on the night of Dec. 13, when Christina Fowler and Gregory Corcoran were found shot to death on South 16th street.

Two weeks later, on Dec. 27, the body of Tony Williams was found on North 18th Street. Williams was also shot and later that day police were able to connect the three murders.

“When we saw (the homeless were being targeted) as a staff, first we were heartbroken,” Acaldo said. “(Three) souls lost, because all life is precious.”

Once that connection was confirmed, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III and police chief Murphy Paul contacted Acaldo and other homeless service providers to alert the homeless of the potential risk to their safety.

“I think it really got ratcheted up after the police said the murders were connected,” Acaldo said. “They wanted us to be vigilant to get the word out about the crimes and to choose to spend the night out was not safe.

“I don’t think it’s ever safe to be out on the street, especially if you are a woman or a mother with children.”

Acaldo said the agency’s outreach efforts was increased, with staff members encouraging the homeless to spend the night in one of St. Vincent’s shelters.

The agency immediately enacted its disaster plan, expanding its capacity with the addition of cots. He said that if the new 36-bed facility that is scheduled to be completed in February was open, another 72 beds would have been available.

“We had some people staying with us that would have otherwise not been here,” Acaldo said. “What we wanted to do with those staying with us was to relieve that anxiety, relieve that paranoia and encourage them to stay in the shelter.”

A meeting with Moore, Paul, Acaldo and homeless service providers was held at St. Vincent on Dec. 30 when law enforcement officials not only emphasized a continued vigilance to encourage the homeless to seek refuge but also asked anyone with information regarding the murders to contact the police.

Also during that time, the Louisiana Housing Cooperation had authorized the homeless service providers to house homeless people in area motels through Jan. 6.

On Jan 2, Jeremy Anderson was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder.

Acaldo said Moore and Paul reaching out to homeless providers was significant. He said during the Dec. 30 meeting officials made it clear there was a choice to be made: continue the investigation and not communicate the risk to public safety which might put investigators in a better position to make an arrest or to alert the homeless community of the risk.

“They made a choice of life,” Acaldo said.

He noted that no additional security was added at St. Vincent but police were asked to watch the main campus for anyone who might have been attempting to jump the fence.

“We asked them to do what was necessary to communicate with the individual and get them off of the property and help us get them into our shelter,” Acaldo said, adding that a special cell phone number had been established for police to call if they found someone that wanted shelter.

Because of his close connection to the homeless community, Acaldo said he was personally impacted by the murders. He added the killings show the importance of making the Gospel message come to life for those in need, in a time when homeless numbers are increasing.

“The trend is people are sleeping outside,” he said. “It’s actually been here but it is more visible because the numbers are up.”

He blamed an increase in mental health issues, as well as drug addiction, for the rise. He said that as recently as five years ago, the percentage of mentally ill among the homeless was about 33-34 percent, but now it’s close to 70 percent.

“And the homeless population in general seem to be older than they were many years ago,” he said.