Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

How southwest Louisiana mobilized to shelter unhoused people during the winter storm

A damaged home in Lake Charles. Photo by Katie Sikora

Six months after Hurricane Laura, Lake Charles is still in a state of disrepair. The deep freeze has slowed recovery even more.

As February’s winter storm brought record-low temperatures and deep freezes through the South, Dominique Darbonne and Roishetta Ozane, grew concerned about unhoused individuals sleeping in tents and campers who were especially vulnerable to the cold. Hurricane Laura — which hit southwest Louisiana in August 2020 and was followed six weeks later by Hurricane Delta — and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a pre-existing housing crisis in the region. Post-storm evictions and the lack of federal aid have left an unaccounted number of residents unhoused, as Southerly reported. 

Darbonne, a musician who has been helping her family rebuild its car wash business damaged by the hurricanes, and Ozane, the southwest Louisiana community organizer for environmental group Healthy Gulf, quickly organized a mutual aid effort called the Vessel Project. They crowd-sourced an estimated $30,000 through social media that they funneled to people seeking shelter and supplies, and said they provided over 30 hotel rooms to housing insecure people in Lake Charles for a full week. Over the course of the winter storm, their project grew: They say they helped over 2,000 people across Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi get water, groceries, heaters, and other essentials during the freeze.

The Vessel Project organized food and clothing drives for people in need. Photo courtesy the Vessel Project.

“Especially in the era of COVID, people are having problems paying rent, keeping jobs,” said Ozane. “A lot of people we helped — 12 months ago, 10 months ago, nine months ago — were not homeless, not jobless. These people had careers, homes, cars. But because of the pandemic and the two hurricanes, they had absolutely nothing.”

The winter storm had southwest Louisiana residents bracing for another disaster. Six months ago, many lacked power and water for days. Piles of debris still line many roads in Lake Charles and structures across town are in various stages of repair. “Our homes are wide open to the sky,” said Denise Durel, president and CEO of the United Way of Southwest Louisiana.

With a large percentage of houses and apartments still vacant after locals were displaced, no one was around to detect pipes bursting from freezing temperatures. City employees and contractors searched private properties throughout Lake Charles for leaks. Those who were home experienced rolling blackouts, and dripped water from their faucets to avoid more burst pipes. This led to a drastic drop in water pressure, as The Advocate reported Monday, forcing healthcare providers to close and leaving people without clean drinking water in their homes. The city was under a boil water advisory for a week.

The Lake Charles city government did not respond to Southerly’s request for comment. 

Tiffany Guillory, a middle school teacher in Westlake whom Southerly interviewed last year, said in a text that for four days, the water was coming out so slowly, she would “have a glass of water in an hour.” Other people told Southerly that they couldn’t shower for a week. 

The United Way quickly organized a bottled-water giveaway, and Durel said the organization provided water to 700 families in just one hour. The National Guard ran a similar drive, just as it did after the hurricanes when water was scarce. Calcasieu Parish and the city of Lake Charles also teamed up to provide non-congregate shelter space for anyone who needed it during the freeze, said Tarek Polite, director of human services for the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury. The aid was especially critical since many of the region’s homeless shelters were damaged by the hurricanes. Together, the local government entities paid for 105 hotel rooms for those seeking shelter from the cold. No one was turned away, according to Polite. 

Damage in Lake Charles following two hurricanes. Photo by Katie Sikora. 

While warm temperatures have since returned to southwest Louisiana, the freeze stalled hurricane recovery efforts even more. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is currently working on providing mobile homes as temporary housing for some hurricane survivors. But “last week’s unusual weather and the after effects limited the activities of FEMA and its contractors, slowing the progress toward providing temporary housing to hurricane survivors,” said Gerard Hammink, a FEMA spokesperson in Lake Charles.

Bottled water delivered by the Vessel Project. Photo courtesy the Vessel Project

The agency diverted housing caseworkers to visit FEMA units and “find out if people were having any problems,” and had to inspect vacant units for damage from burst pipes. Still, they were able to move about 20 households into FEMA units over the weekend, said Hammink.

Since the hurricanes, southwest Louisiana has lacked data about how many individuals have become unhoused as a result of the hurricanes. But the winter storm provided a rare opportunity for officials to get a clearer sense of the problem. 

“It made us aware of some people that were pretty much in the shadows, that we just did not know about,” said Polite. He estimated that about a quarter of the people who sought aid through the city/parish program last week were newly unhoused —  not part of the chronically homeless population Polite recognizes. Now, he said the parish is following up with them to connect them with available resources.

If you are in Lake Charles and need aid, you can contact the Vessel Project via Facebook or email. If you’re in Calcasieu Parish and need assistance, call 211 or text 898-211 to reach the United Way of Southwest Louisiana. Here’s a list we compiled of other disaster relief resources in Southwest Louisiana. 

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.