BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Baton Rouge city leaders are launching a new initiative, the Homelessness Outreach Team, also called HOT Team.

The HOT Team is a group of law enforcement and mental health specialists. They meet one-on-one with those who are unhoused to provide help.

“It’s [panhandling and homelessness] certainly increased with the pandemic and the housing crisis, all those issues that we been facing here,” said Mark Armstrong, spokesperson for Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s office.

The HOT team does weekly community outreach, including litter cleanup and handing lists of resources.

“We’re here to help,” said Armstrong. “Now, I want to say litter is a big difference from personal belongings. We are not throwing away tents or sleeping bags.” 

Other outreach includes health, food, housing, and mental health services.

Dr. Jermey Blunt, a behavioral health specialist, is joining the HOT team. His demand increased by 30 percent just from 2020 to 2021. 

“The homeless, like I said before, is a mental health issue by itself,” Blunt said. “Whether that is schizophrenia, whether that is depression or that is simply lost. Because nobody as a kid says, ‘hey I want to be homeless when I grow up.’” 

In 2019, Louisiana had 2,941 people facing homelessness. That number increased to 3,173 in 2020.

Dr. Blunt said the eviction mortarium has helped people keep a roof over their heads, but there are still lingering effects of the pandemic.

“There are a lot of people just not working,” he said. “I spoke a year ago, no one would know how Covid would affect our mental health, but you see it everywhere.”

Armstrong said it’s challenging to create relationships with the most vulnerable, but their goal is to change lives.

“We have to do continuous outreach. We have to build authentic relationships with individuals out here, build trust. And then long-term we will be able to see success with these individuals,” he said.

Armstrong said homelessness and panhandling have become dangerous and the best way you can contribute is to make a donation. To donate to the East Baton Rouge Parish Homelessness Prevention Giving Campaign, click here.