Victim of the Streets

According to Eric Gammons, president of Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing Inc., the homeless population in Lafayette hovers somewhere around 400, decreasing in summer and increasing during the winter. However, that number does not include the homeless who primarily exist outside of the homeless shelters. Those people are usually documented by public or private agencies only if they get arrested ' or killed.

The preceding paragraph was part of The Independent Weekly's June 13 cover story, "Slipping Through the Cracks," which detailed the lives of Lafayette's homeless population. Independent contributor Dege Legg spent a week living on the streets and in a "tramp camp" he discovered off Evangeline Thruway. One of the women Legg interviewed and briefly wrote about was a young homeless woman named Shannon, a quiet, petite brunette who often made trips to the laundromat to wash the clothes of the tramp camp members.

"She was definitely shy and not interested in being in the spotlight," says Legg. "She was sweet and smart and reserved. There were some pretty strong personalities in the camp, and she didn't mind staying in the background. She didn't seem to take drugs, and her worst habit, if anything, was junk food. She was also one of the few that never panhandled."

Last Friday, Shannon's body was discovered under a tree approximately 300 feet from the Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission's welcome center at 1400 NW Evangeline Thruway.

"At this point it's being labeled a suspicious death," says Lafayette Police Department spokesman Mark Francis. "The preliminary reports from the medical examiner indicate that it's a homicide." Toxicology reports will not be released for another two weeks.

The police department is not releasing her full name until it can notify Shannon's next of kin. Francis says they have leads that her family may be in Tennessee, while Legg says that Shannon told him she ' at least at some point ' had relatives in Texas. (Anyone who has leads on her death is asked to call Crimestoppers at 232-TIPS.)

Approximately three weeks after we ran our initial story, the Lafayette Police Department conducted a sweep of the camp. "We had folks calling and complaining that there were X amount of people in this particular area, because the residents and business community had concerns," says Francis. There were no further sweeps conducted at the camp, but its effects were evident. I drive the Thruway every morning, and at the height of summer's blistering heat, it was common to see the homeless congregating under the shade of the lone tree near the corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot.

In death, as in life, Shannon for now remains nameless, labeled simply as a transient. Her body currently rests unclaimed at the Lafayette Parish Coroner's office. If no next of kin can be found or if her body isn't claimed, she will either be cremated or given a pauper's funeral at the parish's discretion, according to a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Coroners Association.

The day after Shannon's body was found, I received an e-mail from Independent Weekly reader Denise Dupuis of Opelousas:

"I remember the cover article on the homeless featured back in June and how shaken I was to realize that these people could be any one of us," she wrote. "No one is immune to the reality of the unexpected happening in life. Complacency is a luxury that life does not allow for very long.

"After a job interview in Lafayette this past Friday morning, I was on my way home to Opelousas when I got stuck in the traffic jam passing by the crime scene near the gas station," she continued. "I did not hear it was one of the homeless women in the featured story until today. ...

"Please acknowledge this woman and the incident in your next issue to remind everyone that she was a human being with a life, and people loved her no matter what her flaws. And remind people that we should not look down on or judge the fragility of others or what life has done to them. We all need to throw off the security blanket of fear that we wrap ourselves in and have the courage to open our eyes to see what we can do to make a difference in the lives of others. We need to realize that taking time for even the smallest kindness can make a difference beyond measure. Any small ripple of light that we put out there is unending."