In the past year, Lafayette's homeless population has received a whole new level of attention. There have been frequent stories in the local media about an increase in the local homeless population ' but accurate numbers are extremely difficult to pinpoint because of their often-transient nature. Still, they are often cited as part of the reason for a supposed increase in Lafayette crime numbers.

There is one question, however, that is never addressed in these stories.

Who are these people, and how did they become homeless?

That's what Independent Weekly contributor Dege Legg hoped to answer when he set out on a difficult quest: spend a week homeless in Lafayette and document the experience.

Legg grew his beard before he set out on the streets. And when he left the comforts of home behind, he also left behind his cell phone, computer, and any other communication devices. He only carried a backpack and one change of clothes. It's immersion journalism, the writer's equivalent of the method-acting technique famously epitomized by Robert De Niro's transformation to portray Jake La Motta in Raging Bull.

You can read the results of Legg's week in this issue's cover story, "Slipping Through the Cracks."

It took Legg a few days to earn the trust of Allison, Jason, Just Dave, Keith, and the other homeless people he met. Eventually, everyone in their homeless circle all had the same request: If we tell you our stories, please don't print our last name. Some don't want to bring further shame to their family. Some have criminal records and fear retribution from the police. They did, however, agree to be photographed, so we've honored their request not to use their last names. You can view additional photos and hear interviews with Allison, Jason and Keith online at www.theind.com. (Warning: the audio interviews contain graphic language and adult content.)

One of Legg's discoveries was a "tramp camp" in Lafayette. Tucked away from public view, the secret encampment houses more than a dozen occupants, and Legg learned the unspoken hierarchy of the homeless during his nights at the camp.

The stories that emerge out of the tramp camp are incongruous with the narrative that currently defines Acadiana and its future. Our oil and gas sector is thriving, the local economy continues to grow, our unemployment rate is currently the lowest in the state, and development continues at a brisk pace.

One of the few consequences of such continued good news is the unintended effect of threatening the more vulnerable members of our community ' especially when it comes to housing. A shortage of affordable lower-income housing (both for rent and purchase) continues to squeeze struggling working-class families who fall into the region's unacceptable poverty level. According to the 2000 Census, more than 21 percent of Acadiana families live below the poverty level, while 15 percent fall into that category in Lafayette.

For those people, sometimes one unexpected event ' a work accident, hospitalization, getting laid off ' can mean the difference between having a roof over their heads or being homeless. As our cover subject Allison says, "There are a lot of people out there who are only one paycheck away from being like us."

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