LAFAYETTE, La. — When you see someone asking for money on the street, Lafayette Consolidated Government is asking that you don't stop for them.
New signs that have recently popped up in Lafayette advise that instead you call 2-1-1 before giving money to panhandlers.
"Panhandling is not safe. Change the way you give. Call 211 to help," the signs read.
Operators at 2-1-1 can direct callers to resources to help the homeless, people struggling with addiction, and others in need.
Advocates for the homeless say these new anti-panhandling signs are very concerning.
"People in Acadiana are in need. Our neighbors are struggling," ARCH Executive Director Leigh Rachal says.
ARCH reports that since January of 2020, they have seen, conservatively, an 82% increase in homelessness, while concurrently, a dramatic decrease in available shelter beds due to concerns for community spread of COVID-19.
In October, an ARCH street survey showed that of those experiencing homelessness, 61% reported having to occasionally or often panhandle.
KATC reported on panhandling during the pandemic, you can see that story here.
"Panhandling is usually an activity engaged in as a last option to meet basic human needs of food and shelter."
ARCH says that in that survey, 67% of the participants reported COVID-19 and/or loss or reduction of employment income to be the cause of their homelessness.
Rachal says that they are sharing the information in order to combat the harmful narratives that most panhandlers are swindlers, make more money than those who are employed, or are from out of town.
"This simply is not true. When February brought freezing temperatures to our area, the need for shelter was even greater than anticipated," said Rachal.
"ARCH, in cooperation with partner agencies, and with the financial support of hundreds of generous community members, was able to provide temporary shelter to nearly 600 households who were literally homeless, housing insecure, or whose housing was simply inadequate to keep people safe from freezing temperatures," she adds.
But resources are scarce in comparison to the growing needs."
Rachal points out that while these new signs do give direction to help, there are just not enough resources to help everyone in need. She also says the signs will do nothing to prevent panhandling.
"While 232-HELP/211 is a valued partner and able to provide information for resources that are available within a community, the sad fact is that there are not currently enough resources to help everyone in need," said Rachal.
"Signage does not prevent panhandling," she said. "Laws and ordinances do not prevent panhandling. What prevents panhandling is a community comprised of social service organizations, government entities, philanthropic organizations, and individuals working collectively to meet the needs of ALL of its citizens.
"Investing in strategies that work to prevent and end homelessness is the smart use of taxpayer money and should be the strategy of choice."
ARCH provided ways for those who are interested in being a helping hand to their neighbors in need:
- Give financially: Sometimes this may mean giving directly to those in need. Other times it is best to give to a reputable nonprofit whose efforts you support. Each person should choose the manner of giving that is right for them.
- Invest your time: Attend ARCH monthly public meetings (4th Thursdays at noon via Zoom). Join ARCH Lives on Facebook (2nd Wednesdays at 6pm). Volunteer with a nonprofit or faith-based group that is doing good work. Plug in and participate in finding community solutions.
- Use your voice: Ask elected officials at the local, state, and national levels to provide resources to meet the basic needs of every citizen.
"Charities, and faith-based organizations cannot bear the burden of meeting the basic needs for food and shelter within a community," said Rachal.
"Individual donations are simply not ever going to be an adequate response to problems as complex and multi-faceted as housing instability and food insecurity," she said. "We must set policies and allocate funding to solutions.
"Nearly every faith, every culture, every philosophy teaches us the importance of loving our neighbors as ourselves," Rachal says. "We teach our children to be helpers, to sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria. This is our opportunity, our moment, to lead by example."
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