Stephen Etienne began his career out of college in the oilfield. When his health took a turn, so did his career. After disc surgery and rehabilitation, he could not go back to the work he’d been doing, So he followed his mentor Ernest Wilson’s counsel and began volunteering at the Iberia Homeless Shelter. Etienne’s health travails were not over. In 2008, he needed a kidney transplant. His son Xavier served as donor, and his life changed for good. “God led me here, and I’ve made the shelter my ministry,” he said.
On Feb. 1, 2009, he became the shelter’s director. “It was an easy transition,” he said. “I owe a lot to my wife, Joann, I call her my number one supporter. She works at Community First Bank, but when I need her, she’s right here by my side.”
Since then, the couple has focused on giving back to the community, serving the homeless population, and diversifying the services the shelter provides. “I had personal experience in the field of substance abuse, so our services were extended in that area,” he said.
When Etienne became director, the shelter’s services only included homeless, single men. “In 2017, the federal government mandated that shelters should serve men, women and children, every homeless person should have a door to open in crisis,” he said. “They also cut the funding for our transitional housing, opting instead for a program of rapid rehousing and coordinated assessment.”
“We used to be able to monitor our clients as they went through the process of getting sober if they needed to, and getting back on their feet. We’d check in in 30, 60, 90, 120 days. With these new programs, it is not always possible to monitor their success or lack of it,” said Etienne.
“Some of our clients do not have the life skills to survive. It’s really reprogramming them to get in the habit of becoming responsible. We help them develop these skills in our Re-Entry to the Workforce program.” The shelter assists clients with ID cards, check cards, personal protection equipment for employment, even writing and refining their resumes.
The shelter does struggle, with a small staff, including Outreach Director Thaddeus Robinson and volunteer case managers, and a funding climate that has become more competitive than ever. “Thaddeus is a great asset, although he does represent not only our shelter, but also Vermilion, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes. Federal money has dried up, and grants have become much more difficult to get. We do what we can with what we have,” said Etienne.
New Iberia presents another challenge: transportation. “It’s very difficult for clients to access the different services available because of the lack of transportation available to them. We help them as much as we can, but we can only do so much,” he said. As limited as the agency is size-wise, they have an enviable success rate. In 2018, 65 percent of their clients found employment, and 78 percent were moved into permanent housing.
The COVID crisis hit the shelter hard, says Etienne. “It was March 15, 2020, and they (the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing, of which the shelter is a member) called. They told me to shut it down. I thought, “I’m a small agency, how can they pick on me?”
“But the ARCHH executive director, Leigh Rachal called me, and said, ‘Stephen, with your kidney transplant, you don’t want to risk getting this.’ so we shut it down. I had 11 clients to find lodging for. The local hotels have helped, and I am happy to say six of these clients now have permanent housing and have found work,” he added.
Etienne and his staff never stopped working, same as other agencies in the parish, including the Disch-DeClouet Service Center. “How could we stop? They’re telling us, work from home, wash your hands, social distance,” he said. “Tell me, how does a homeless person quarantine?”
Amid the challenges, there’s a bright spot on the horizon. The shelter will reopen for residents Monday. With this good news, comes another set of challenges. “We used to depend on the St. Francis Diner to help with clients’ meals. Since they’re not opening again until the 12th, and only limited service on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we’re trying to figure out how to provide four dinners a week and breakfast every day for 12 clients,” he said.
“But I know the community will come through. We would not be here continuing to serve our clients without the support of my board members, and the community as a whole. People really do come through for us, there are great resources here in Iberia Parish.”
Other hopeful developments: “We’re working to build a 4,000 square foot family shelter. Architect Gerald Gesser has volunteered his time and designed it, and we hope to get that project moving in order to serve more people,” said Etienne.
What are the shelter’s needs today? “Well, we always need monetary support. Donations can be made through Paypal, or send us a check,” he said. “We can use volunteers to give their time as case managers as well. Other than that, we need donations of hygiene items, for both men and women.”
There are over half a million people experiencing homelessness in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2020 Homeless assessment report. It’s a fair bet that most of them never dreamed they would be in that statistic. Just a thought, left right here.
Iberia Homeless Shelter Immediate Needs:
Personal hygiene items