Businessman Richard Lipsey says aggressive panhandling near the intersection of Siegen Lane and Rieger Road just off Interstate 10 has gotten so out of hand he is convening a meeting later this week at his office, which is near the busy intersection, with other concerned business owners, law enforcement and elected officials.
Lipsey says he and other business people in the area are frustrated that authorities have failed to address the growing number of panhandlers, who confront motorists in their vehicles and at nearby gas stations and leave trash strewn about the area.
“People are afraid to drive down Reiger Road,” he says. “It’s really gotten to be a problem.”
Among those Lipsey says he emailed to invite to the meeting are Mayor Sharon Weston Broome, District Attorney Hillar Moore, Police Chief Murphy Paul, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and, even, Gov. John Bel Edwards, as well as area businesspeople.
Though panhandlers have frequented the intersection of Siegen and I-10 for years, Lipsey says the problem intensified several months ago at the beginning of the pandemic, when the state began sheltering the city’s homeless population at three local hotels, including the LaQuinta Inn on Reiger Road.
A consultant working with the Louisiana Housing Corporation told Daily Report on Monday those housed in the hotels were offered a variety of wrap-around social services and are now in the process of being relocated to more permanent housing, though not as a result of Lipsey’s complaints.
Homelessness and panhandling are two distinct problems that are often conflated. But the two populations can overlap because of mental illness and substance abuse issues.
Though it’s unclear who of those on the email list will attend Lipsey’s meeting, Moore says he will be there if scheduling permits. Mayor Sharon Weston Broome or one of her top administrators also will be there, Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel says.
The administration is aware of the panhandling problem around the parish, particularly in the Siegen Lane area, and has been working to pull together various groups of providers and social service agencies to help those who suffer from substance abuse and behavioral health problems, says Gissel, who agrees the problem has gotten worse since the pandemic.
But he and Broome’s assistant CAO, Pamela Jones, who is tasked with addressing the issue, say the problem is complex and will take time to solve.
“Panhandling is one of our major pillars of concern and needs to be collectively addressed by the police and sheriff’s office,” says Jones, who estimates between 85% and 90% of panhandlers suffer from mental illness.
Jones and Gissel are optimistic that by working together with various stakeholders, the parish can get a better handle on the problem.
As to why it took a frustrated businessperson to call a meeting, as opposed to government leaders, Gissel says the city-parish has been actively working on the issue. But he says the administration welcomes the involvement of businesspeople and private citizens, who can call attention to specific causes or issues City Hall may not be aware of.
“We have been working on this and we have been responding,” he says. “But it always helps to have eyes and ears on the ground to make us aware of what it is going on in specific locations.”
Lipsey’s meeting is scheduled for Thursday.