By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Homeless encampments are becoming increasingly visible in the Greater Baton Rouge area, even encroaching into the suburbs, and the number of women occupying those outdoor habitats are also on the rise, according to St. Vincent de Paul Society personnel who participated in a recent census.

Mental illness among the homeless is also increasing at an alarming rate, according to Debra Blacher, director of Shelter and Residential Services at St. Vincent, and Linda Reed, assistant director of Housing and Residential Services.

Blacher and Reed were among seven teams of volunteers who participated in a nationwide census of the homeless population on a chilly Jan. 27 night. St. Vincent executive director Michael Acaldo said the Housing and Urban Development annually asks agencies serving the homeless community to perform an annual point-in-time count, usually on a Monday in late January.

“The count gives every community as well at a national level, the homeless count in the United States,” Acaldo said. “It also puts the Louisiana Housing Corporation in a better position to say our numbers are up. That plays a critical role. LHC has done a great job of bringing dollars to Louisiana, which we are a beneficiary of.”

Police accompanied Belchar, Reed and volunteers from a number of other agencies, including Volunteers of America, Star Corporation and LHC, from a distance throughout the night. Besides providing security, albeit from a distance so as not to scare off the homeless population who is still reeling from three random murders in their community, Belchar said police input was also needed to identify areas where encampments have been established.

“The police were fantastic; they see places on a normal basis that we are not familiar with,” she said.

Specific areas citywide were identified, including those around Florida Boulevard, Siegen Lane, College Drive, Government Street, North Boulevard, Airline Highway and Plank Road.

“We graciously approached (the homeless community), and we were very respectful to the person we were looking for,” said Reed, who has participated in the survey for the past five years.

Belchar said they asked individuals how they were doing and if they would be agreeable to talk for a few minutes. The survey was streamlined from the cumbersome paper format to digital, thanks to a new app that was recently developed.

“Once we were able to get their attention and build some trust, we would ask such questions as where they slept the previous night, how long they have been homeless and how long they have been in a particular spot,” Reed said, adding that they were also able to gather added data such as military background and, if applicable, any time spent in jail and if they were released in the past 90 days.

During the course of the night, which approximately lasted from 7-11 p.m., each homeless person was given a brown bag dinner, toiletery items and a new blanket.

“They were extremely appreciative and cooperative,” Reed said, although she added that one women ran into a nearby grocery story when she saw the team approaching.

“(Homeless people) along College Drive were very cooperative,” Reed added.

Disturbing trends emerged during the census taking, including discovering an uptick in the percentage of homeless women although the majority remains men.

“That was kind of surprising,” Reed said of the spike in the female population. “I think it’s due to mental illness and domestic abuse.

“Mental illness is the number one challenge.”

Reed also noted the homeless community is aging, with the average age from 45 to 62. She said serious health issues are also becoming increasingly common among homeless males.

“(The census) shows what we have been seeing, and citizens throughout the community can see, there are more visible homeless street people than maybe five years ago,” Acaldo said. “People living in encampments, that particular part of the homeless population is increasing.”

“There are also more and more people hanging out and almost living on bus benches,” he said. “In the past people did not want to be bothered so they did not want you to know where they were.”

He has noticed an increasing number of the homeless population preferring to spend the night outdoors, a recent trend in the Baton Rouge area but one that has been trending nationwide for the past several years.

“Some people feel more comfortable outside,” Acaldo said. “There are no walls, doors, boundaries. Some of it has to do with mental disorders.”

Reed cited a number of mental health issues facing the homeless, mainly trauma, abuse, domestic violence, education and addiction.

“The challenge is greater today than it was three years ago,” she said. “It’s like another world today.  What concerns me is how do we eliminate the problem.”

As an example she cited that mental health issues have contributed to individuals returning to the street after having been relocated to permanent housing. She said even after being relocated to an apartment, some individuals require supportive case management, and without that support a return to the streets is a high possibility.

Acaldo said the census provides local, state and federal leaders information so they can identify potential funds to address needs throughout the homeless community. He said everyone in shelters throughout the city were also counted, although he admitted there are likely other areas of encampments that he is not aware of.

He said the federal government uses a multiplier based on statistical data from throughout the country to arrive at an estimate number of homeless.