What can Lafayette learn from Colorado Springs about its homelessness response?

Paramedic Scott Essigmann checks on a woman who was passed out in Dorchester Park in July of this year. Essigmann and Steve Gold, a behavioral health clinical navigator, are members of the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s Homeless Outreach Program and were at the park to meet another homeless man who was ready to get off the streets and enter a treatment program for substance abuse. The HOP team treated the woman until firefighters arrived at the scene. The woman was transported to the hospital for treatment. Photo by Christian Murdock/The Colorado Springs Gazette

A week after he was discharged from a behavioral health clinic in Lafayette, Fred got dropped off in a Taco Bell parking lot. He had no emergency contacts. He hadn’t expected to still be alive after swallowing dozens of sleeping pills with a fifth of vodka. With nowhere to go, the clinic administrators called him a cab. He’s still without a home. (To avoid harassment from local police, Fred asked to use a pseudonym.)

Had Fred lived in Colorado Springs, Colo., his journey could have been different. A man in his position may have been taken in by the Homeless Outreach Program, run by the city’s fire department, brought into a shelter program staffed with behavioral health professionals and, ultimately, assisted with transition into more permanent housing.

The difference maker in Colorado Springs: coordination and resources.

Colorado Springs is about a thousand miles northwest of Lafayette, twice as populous and, when it comes to median household incomes, wealthier.

Beyond these differences, however, the two cities have much in common. Politically speaking, both are fairly conservative — purple-red in maps of 2020 election results — with strong religious communities. And while both have a significant number of folks experiencing homelessness within their city limits, Colorado Springs has developed a comprehensive, coordinated response — supported in part by public resources and experienced mental health professionals — that helps this population break the behavioral patterns preventing them from living the kind of lives they want to live.

The response can translate into very different outcomes for unhoused people in otherwise similar cities.

Andrew Phelps, the city government’s homelessness prevention and response coordinator, came to the position with 15 years of social work experience doing street outreach in the community.

“I saw firsthand, every winter, people dying outside,” Phelps says. Increasing the availability and accessibility of shelter beds was his first priority when he took his position with the city four years ago. As of last September, the city had 750 low-barrier shelter beds available, and Phelps estimates that number has since increased to closer to 900, representing a nearly three-fold growth from 2016 numbers.

Phelps clarifies that while the city is not a direct service provider, it’s “a convener and a funder,” distributing approximately $4.5 million of funds every year to local nonprofits via competitive application processes.

One such faith-based nonprofit, the Rescue Mission, used funding from the city, along with donations from individuals, to increase its capacity from 35 emergency shelter beds to 450 on a campus that also provides showers, laundry facilities and case workers to help people locate jobs and manage addictions, mental issues and other struggles.

Currently, Lafayette has a major shortage of shelter beds, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic. What shelter space the area has is unsuitable for social distancing. Nonprofit groups have urged LCG to use coronavirus relief funds for a new shelter and two years of operations. Agencies serving people without homes in Lafayette have long advocated for more public resources. And public resources are a part of Colorado Springs’ success, even as it relies on nonprofits and faith-based organizations.

“The city’s investment has allowed us to create more dynamic programming,” says Travis Williams, chief development officer at the Rescue Mission. “It’s a beautiful example of what happens when the private sector and the public sector work together to solve a community challenge.”

Paramedic Essigmann examines William Fox, 60, in Dorchester Park in July before arranging an ambulance to take the homeless man to a detox center and then to a treatment program for substance abuse. Both Essigmann and a behavioral health clinical navigator have been working with Fox since January. Photo by Christian Murdock/The Colorado Springs Gazette

Another of the city’s initiatives, the Homeless Outreach Program, grew from an earlier project that, beginning in 2012, paired behavioral health professionals and paramedics with police to respond to non-emergency 911 calls. According to Stephen Johnson, community and public health administrator for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, the program originally worked to “help individuals who are calling 911 because they need primary care or mental health care, transportation, those types of things.”

After Phelps’ 2019 Homelessness Initiative kicked off, this 911 emergency call program pivoted toward assisting the homeless population in Downtown Colorado Springs, while maintaining the two-person team model.

Aja King, the Homeless Outreach Program’s community behavioral health coordinator, is a licensed professional counselor with prior experience in private practice and inpatient psychiatric hospitals. Her background in behavioral health allows her “to have a conversation with someone who's responding to internal stimuli, and ask myself: is it a panic attack or an anxiety disorder? Is it major depressive? Or are they coming down from meth? There's a lot of different things you're trying to figure out.”

Her skillset as a mental health professional also helps her to approach, with compassion, individuals who others might misapprehend as threatening or criminal. In her view, the work of the Outreach Program is just a part of doing what’s best for the city, “because until that person becomes safe within themselves, they won't be safe in the community.”

Lafayette, in contrast, often falls short when it comes to connecting the dots for people experiencing homelessness. According to Kim Boudreaux, CEO of Catholic Charities of Acadiana, the sort of “dump-and-run” experience described by Fred is unfortunately all too common here. In her view, it’s the lack of financial resources that makes providing continuous care for this vulnerable population so difficult in our community.

Colorado Springs is coming up a lot locally in ongoing conversations about how to address rising homelesseness in the Lafayette area. District 3 City Councilwoman Liz Hebert connected with officials there while on a trip to the area and has been in touch with Phelps over the past year, learning more about the programming he helps facilitate in his city. “It’s very comprehensive, very detailed and very organized,” she says. “It's directing people to the resources that we have available and finding out, ‘What do you need? We will get you to that.’”

Hebert was a champion of signs deployed in Lafayette to deter panhandling, an idea she picked up from the program in Colorado Springs. Along the way, however, Lafayette’s approach has been primarily punitive.

Lafayette police, at Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s direction, have pursued an aggressive enforcement campaign, making recurring arrests on ordinances of questionable constitutionality, including one that a district judge ruled unconstitutional earlier this year. (That matter is before the Louisiana Supreme Court.)

Hebert insists the recent uptick in arrests as a result of aggressive police enforcement of panhandling ordinances was not the goal when she first began work on the issue in 2019. “My intention is always to guide them to the necessary resources,” she says. So far, however, those resources haven’t materialized.

When it comes to financial resources, Hebert says she’s working to find a way to invest more public dollars toward creating programs similar to those in Colorado Springs — increased shelter beds, work placement programs. “I've been communicating with all the homeless coalition groups,” she says. “I told them we can find the money. I'm not worried about the dollars. It's about all of us agreeing on the right path forward.”

Since the Homeless Outreach Program began in mid-2019, Colorado Springs police issued 71% fewer tickets for illegally trespassing among a group of 20 homeless individuals who’d previously been charged with such offenses, and anecdotal evidence suggests the Outreach Program has been successful in helping rehabilitate chronically homeless individuals. Despite the city’s investments and the wide availability of low-barrier shelter beds, homelessness continues to be pervasive, and waitlists for non-shelter-based housing can be very long.

Lafayette has seen its own success in the past. Boudreaux notes that there were more than 300 homeless veterans in Acadiana in 2007 when, via grant funding in partnership with the VA, her organization was able to dedicate increased time, energy and programming to veteran homelessness.

“By the time that Covid began,” Boudreaux says, “we had 11 homeless veterans in Acadiana, and we knew them all by name. We proved that it could be done. It was a matter of resources.”

Those involved in Colorado Springs’ approach believe Lafayette may be uniquely situated to address the challenges here, saying its experience with disaster response could be a major asset when it comes to improving the support system for people experiencing homelessness.

“I don't live in Lafayette,” says the Rescue Mission’s Williams. “But with what you guys have experienced, especially with hurricanes, I can imagine that the community has come together on those occasions and done things. That same kind of energy, when it's pointed in the direction of addressing homelessness, can make a big difference.”