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I’m tired. We’re all tired. As a cold jet stream continues to dip into the Deep South for over a week now, New Orleans homeless providers have been operating under our freeze plan. The plan is simple: pull as many people off the streets as you can and pack the shelters. The plan is to save lives by any means necessary. The work is time consuming, drawing staff into the wee hours of the morning. Fueled by stale coffee and cigarettes, teams of outreach workers are combing the darkened alleyways, frozen underpasses and urine stained doorways of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. The odds are stacked against us: an estimated 7,400 unsheltered homeless individuals scattered in over 61,000 abandoned buildings and on streets, alleyways and parks stretching across the vast geographic terrain of the city and parish. In contrast: Manhattan has many fewer unsheltered homeless people (777) but more than three times as many street outreach workers as we do. We’re so short staffed our Director of Facilities, Calvin Lee, has been riding shotgun with me for the graveyard shift. It doesn’t matter whether he has experience working the streets or not. We need the bodies and we need dedication. More importantly, I need someone who is willing to sacrifice precious hours of sleep to prevent human popsicles scattering on the streets of The Big Easy.
We meet at the office about nine, fill up our coffee cups and start the roll. Walking out to the van the humid frigid wind hits your face and you begin to wonder if you dressed appropriately. 25 degrees with 80% humidity cuts right through your jacket, stings your face and freezes your core. It’s a cold that is hardly comparable…..and I grew up in Chicago! However, we’re both insulated. Calvin is wearing a full body coverall, thick gloves and I’m layered like an onion. Still, as I rev up the van we laughingly cuss to each other about the freeze, both knowing that in 6 or 7 hours we’ll be tucked nicely in our beds satisfied that we saved lives.
We’re eagle eyeing shadows, straining our faculties to distinguish between piles of garbage left to rot against buildings or bodies struggling against the cold. Doorways, alleys, porches, benches and bridges merit special attention, as does the lone stranger aimlessly wandering the streets to ward off the freeze. When we encounter a client our conversations are brief. We explain to people that there is a city shelter open and we’ll take them there.
Most people we find on the street, answering through chattering teeth, are grateful for the ride and the opportunity to trade a stiff piece of cardboard for a soft mattress and a military surplus blanket. However, there are exceptions. There are individuals, and they are almost always individuals, who refuse to come in out of the cold. These clients are so mentally ill that their physical health is in jeopardy. One of the ravages of untreated schizophrenia is that not only is social isolation and paranoia the norm, it is embraced. Many of the hard-core chronic homeless, those with years and even decades on the street, have become so isolated in their mental illness that they don’t trust anyone. It can take months, even years, for outreach workers to break through the mental barriers these clients have in order to help them accept services including housing. For people who are uneducated about mental illness and homelessness — who believe that there are actually people who just don’t want help — I ask this question: Does anyone decide they want to be mentally ill, to be schizophrenic? All outreach workers understand that patience, persistence and consistency create the foundation to get these individuals off the street. These virtues are quickly forgotten when the mercury dips below freezing and your client refuses to move inside. What are your options?
You could have the client hospitalized – too gravely disabled to care for himself — knowing full well that New Orleans’ broken hospital system might discharge him back on the street in a matter of hours. This would dislocate him further from his neighborhood supports—and his nest of blankets. I guess you could have the client arrested for some trumped-up homeless charge like obstructing a public passage so that he would spend the night in a warm jail cell. However, I’ve never heard of a social worker advocating for a client’s rights to be violated. In fact, I think they’d take my license for that.
When it gets that cold and your client refuses shelter, your options are limited. I’m not a religious person, but when you know there is a distinct possibility that you’ll find him expired tomorrow morning, you’ve got to do something. So you give him what you can: a blanket and a prayer.