Author Page for Mike Miller, LCSW
Mike Miller, LCSW, is a founding member of the UNITY of Greater New Orleans Abandoned Building Outreach Team.
We never lose. Sometimes it just takes us a while to win.
It’s the same tired refrain I often use when a long week has thoroughly kicked my ass, leaving me contemplating my career ambitions and wondering if full-time bartender would be a more fulfilling vocation. Peeling off a dingy, sweat-stained yellow outreach shirt and tearing the steel-toed boots off my swollen feet, I cracked the first beer of an always short weekend and tally the win-loss record.
My lovely girlfriend asks how the week was as we softly rock on our porch swing, watching the daily pressures of New Orleans fade into the heavy humidity of a Friday evening. She knows when and what to ask. Most of it is rehashing 3 AM pillow talk as I crawled into bed after night outreach. She already knows if I won. There was no question last week.
It didn’t matter that when I was searching an abandoned building for signs of homeless squatters, three hornet stings left my forearm a bright red swatch of sandpaper. It didn’t matter that eight hours spent driving to and from Southeast Louisiana State Mental Hospital, tacked onto middle-of-the-night outreach work, twice shattered any concept of my circadian rhythms. I ain’t worried about any of that. My Miller Lite tasted especially cold and pleasing last Friday. My sad, pathetic seven-year post-Katrina waltz with Ms. Gwendolyn and a shattered mental health system finally ended. The music stopped. The proof is the bronze key for apartment #223 stamped “DO NOT COPY.” First thing we did was go get a copy.
Ms. Gwen got her pad, her crib, her new digs. The sad schizophrenic woman who has a tendency to wear a gold-painted baby shoe dangling off a loose pony-tail and prefers to scream hyper-spiritual chants at passing motorists and pedestrians warning of impending damnation … is finally housed. She is currently a medicated, charming and politically insightful lady who happens to have a twenty-year history of homelessness. Who knew that the biblical verses she wrote in permanent marker up and down her legs would come off after a couple of showers?
Yeah, the outreach team never loses. Sometimes it just takes us a while to win. For that, we deserve another cold one. Seven years is a long time to keep a celebratory beer on the ice. Knock another off the Tenacious Ten list of homeless outreach clients most resistant to housing. It’s been a hell of a summer.
The answer is 232. At least it is for Coleman. It’s the question I get every time I present at conferences about outreach: “How do you get people into housing who have been on the street for years, even decades, who just don’t want to go in?”
I’ve been seeing Coleman every week for the last four and a half years. Sometimes I saw him once a week and sometimes more. He would have been homeless 35 years come this spring. After having an initial psychiatric break at age 19, Coleman made his bed under several bridges, a cubby by the Superdome, behind a dumpster next to the post-office and various other places off the public radar.
He’s in my Tenacious Ten, the Hardest to House; Special Projects Division. They’re not necessarily the sickest, just the hardest to move off the street. It’s the list of the people so entrenched in their homelessness that housing becomes an afterthought. These particular individuals’ first step into housing involves crossing a river a mile wide, filled with bulimic sharks and punctured with Class V rapids.
At 11:30 PM, Tuesday night we pulled our dingy van under a darkened bridge. The new million dollar LED lights of the Superdome casting a warm and ever changing glow in the background, me and Coleman had our weekly huddle. After exchanging pleasantries, Coleman told me he was ready.
“Ready for what?” I asked.
“I’m ready to go in,” he said.
Attempting my best to stay cool, I smiled and let him know I’d be back. He was serious.
My girlfriend later asked if I pissed my pants when he said that. While my bladder remained intact, my heart has been racing since Tuesday, a little before the stroke of midnight. Something like this is akin to the Super Bowl for outreach workers. Be cool. Play your game. Know this is your moment. You worked damn hard for this. Enjoy it. It’s why you spent 232 nights talking to the same guy under the same musty underpass. Late, cold and lonely nights. Game on.
After a quick turnaround, our Housing Specialist extraordinaire Earl located him an apartment. It was inspected the next day and at 6 PM yesterday Travers and I picked Mr. Coleman up for the first time ever. He got his keys to his place: central A/C, washer/dryer, his own toilet, refrigerator, a shower, a door that locks, etc.
It was all done in less than 36 hours. So the simple math is: 12,775 days of homelessness, 232 outreach contacts, 36 hours from street to keys, 1 apartment and the rest of Colman’s life in housing.
Side Note: It’s now the Notorious 9!View Post
It had been a long day and night as we scratched off a rather substantial list of abandoned buildings, musty underpasses and urine soaked doorways on our clipboard. We’re rubbing our tired eyes and cautiously monitoring the digital clock on the dashboard that’s progressing slowly past midnight. We were winding down, slogging our way toward our 2 AM version of the quitting whistle.
“Damn! I forgot! You know that guy who sleeps in the lawyer’s courtyard? I got to show you something that’s been on my mind.”
By now, my co-workers have learned my little quirks and idiosyncracies. You can’t spend the amount of time together that we do without understanding each other. Either through collaborative respect or personnel management, they indulge me. Sadly, they also know I’m going to do whatever I want anyway and that I tend to get a second wind when the moon rises high in the sky.
Without lifting an eyebrow, Travers bites. “Sure. Whatcha thinking?” He can tell this is going to be the start of some flight of fancy.
“It’s been on my mind for a little bit. Let me show you something.” I explain.
Really, it has been on my mind since 2008, when the authorities pulled the body out. In January of that year, construction workers demolishing an old housing development discovered a severely decomposed corpse in an upstairs apartment. There were the tangible signs of squatting: dirty clothing, old food containers, a cooler. The only problem was there was no identification. Initially, the authorities could not even identify the gender of the rotted body. As the report says, “Estimated date of death: 3 months to three years prior, skeletal remains.”
I kept an eye on the case. As anyone in social services knows, everyone has a story, a history, a name and a family. In a city that celebrates death with second lines and all-night drinking binges, I fully recognize that no one dies alone, except those without a name. It’s bothered me for several years.
The database is called NAMUS — the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It’s the final resting place for the anonymous dead. When the proper authorities are unable to locate the next of kin or the circumstances of death prove too challenging, the case is entered into this grim database. I keep an eye on it periodically, continuously hoping we might be able to shed some light on the darkest details of one’s demise.
As this gentleman was clearly homeless when he died, it seemed possible that we might know him. The good people at the LSU Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons took the time to complete a digital post-mortem facial reconstruction. The re-created face was familiar and I remember the gentleman well. He was tall but hunched over, a description matching the autopsy’s finding of a degenerative bone disease in his spine. I remember him being quite mentally ill, disorganized, and a little paranoid. Somewhere in our dozen file cabinets is a lengthy assessment, the information needed to lift this man from anonymity. However, I got nothing. For the life of me I can’t even remember what letter his name begins with.
“So what are you saying? The guy’s not dead? What’s it got to do with my lawyer’s guy?” Travers asks.
“I’m saying he looks exactly like him. They could be brothers! Easily!” I plead.
Travers remains unimpressed so I print up the photo. We go directly to the doorway where the man is sleeping.
The problem with the guy in the doorway is he wants nothing to do with us. He’s deeply paranoid, distrustful and requires a little relationship building. That’s fine and good, but I want a name or something I can work with. But most importantly, I want to convince my co-workers that they’re related.
As Travers starts his rap about housing and being of general assistance, I’m holding up a digital copy of a dead guy. Travers’ eyes dance between the horizontal homeless guy and a piece of 8 x 11 copy paper. I know he agrees when he starts to smile.
Knowing that mental illness has a highly genetic component and that it’s not unusual to have siblings on the street, we have an interesting lead.
But it all starts with a name.View Post
Every day I pass the intersection of Opelousas and Newton. There’s a roof there with a hole carved out the top, shingles tossed to the side. It’s where someone was pulled from the depth of their Katrina hell sequestered in a dark attic waiting for their liberation as the flood waters rose to take their life. You can imagine how it started. Someone, ax in hand, made those first swings hacking their way through the cypress beams of a 150-year-old home. As that small hole enlarged and the rays of sun peeked through the dark, the individual escaped to find a refuge on a baking rooftop surrounded by a flooded city. The helicopters danced through the neighborhoods as thousands like this person clung to the hope of a dramatic rescue.
We see dozens of such roofs every day. I always wonder about that first strike of the ax, the decision or perhaps the ability to choose life over a watery and lonely death. I wonder about the roofs of abandoned buildings without such a hole. What happened in those buildings, or more importantly, what didn’t happen? It’s still very real to those of us in New Orleans. Some of us know that story from experience, some from a friend or family member. We have neighbors who are still in Katrina-induced exile six years after the storm.
Millions of Americans saw the rescues, watched the drama unfold. But I know that roof isn’t real to the rest of America. Opelousas and Newton is a sound stage for the award-winning HBO series “Treme.” It’s a prop that sits in a parking lot waiting for a now infamous scene that, six years later, is still very real to us. In New Orleans we don’t need a re-creation of that awful history. It’s part of our identity. It’s part of everyday and it’s who we are.View Post
When I first landed in The Crescent City I used to work at a bar on South Peters Street. It was in the Warehouse District before the area became an address or a destination; before the condos, boutique hotels and art galleries. Back in 1998, the neighborhood was a hodgepodge collection of vacant cotton warehouses, abandoned row houses formerly holding the offices of river shipping moguls long past expired, and The Big Easy’s version of Skid Row. Sure the neighborhood had impinging gentrification. A few years earlier another transplanted northerner, Emeril Lagasse, hung his own shingle a few blocks away and single-handedly invented the genre of celebrity chef. It was a dicey real estate speculation at the time, a world class eatery casting shadows over the street dwelling denizens of New Orleans.
Mr. Sullivan was no customer, but he was a regular. As a baby faced 18 year-old pulling the graveyard shift dispensing libations and brews to the service industry crowd, I had bigger concerns than the guy who slept out back by the dumpster. As I pushed my last inebriate out the front door, twisted a hundred year old door locked and un-capped my first beer of the night, Mr. Sullivan moved his cardboard into the doorway. With a wave and a nod, Mr. Sullivan did his version of a door stop. With the sun peeking rays over the city and the birds chirping their chorus greetings from the trees, I would quietly finish my duties of stocking beer, cleaning glasses and counting money. Leaving through the back, I would occasionally slide a sandwich or go-box of food to the gentleman now soundly asleep across my front door. This went on for several years.
I’ve always liked this time. It’s the temporal ambiguity, the point when you don’t know if it’s night or day. It’s when the avenues are deserted; street lights are on but unnecessary, the red horizon promising to explode into light. I’d peddle my bike uptown, sometimes catching breakfast before my morning classes at Tulane and other times headed for a blissful and well-deserved morning sleep.
When I left the joint on South Peters, I didn’t stop tending bar. I just moved around the corner to another watering hole. I didn’t stop seeing Mr. Sullivan either. Years went by. I graduated Tulane, re-enrolled, picked up a master’s, Katrina, post-Katrina, had a child, bought a house, etc. The neighborhood changed and evolved. We got older. Mr. Sullivan’s short hair is now dusting gray and his friendly face is worn and weathered. I feel it too, having surrendered to the grey strays that poke through my now unshaven former baby face.
We ran into Mr. Sullivan a few weeks ago. He was hobbled from a fall, a fluorescent pink cast enclosing a broken ankle. It was time. It’s been time.
I was expecting a little more push back from my co-workers to get him approved. Apparently they were moved by me and Mr. Sullivan’s intertwined biographies. He got the keys to his apartment last week.
It’s a little bitter sweet though. 13 years is a long time to darken a doorway and I can’t help but feel it shouldn’t have taken so long to get this man off the streets. It kind of seems like that solitary ride through that time when you can’t tell whether it’s the end of a long night or the start of a new day. I guess you kind of have to embrace the ambiguity of the job, of time and, perhaps, of life.View Post
Technically it’s not homeless; at least not tonight. Instead of steering our blue outreach van toward the abyss of vacant buildings and into the darkened neighborhoods of New Orleans, we head to the neon glow of the West Bank Expressway. Our guy has hollowed out a relatively comfortable, yet tenuous, routine here. As the first of the month graciously bestows a VA disability check, Mr. Marty makes his regular 10 day hegira to one of many transient hotels. These hotels, or motels depending on your affinity for the development of American motor culture, are the respite for the hobbled and unsound homeless. These individuals bequeathed a small monthly entitlement for their chronic illnesses, find refuge from the streets for an all too brief tenure.
It’s a short, sad and desperate decision. Trading in a dark ally or a muggy abandoned house for the security of a locking door or the often overlooked hygienic necessity of hot and cold water, Mr. Marty bids his time of departure. He’s knows the flickering dim of an old television in the corner will soon be replaced by the encompassing drum of a street existence; the garbage trucks and cars, the aloof pedestrians to his solitary hell, the elusiveness of his next meal. The evolutionary desire for safety and self-preservation overrides any micro-economic decision making. Room 133 of an anonymous flea-bag hotel easily trumps the rat infested service alley of the French Quarter. Shelter is not only a desire, but an absolute necessity for continued existence. While we tend to focus on the severely disabled and street homeless, it’s hard to ignore the activity of the complex.
Engulfed in an unnatural hue from the over-powering sodium flood lights, the parking lot is filled with the last possessions of the newly evicted, the mobile homeless and the rent-burdened classes. It’s a curious mix of faded sedans, dated and abused pick-ups and the occasional mini-van sans hub caps. Doors are open and rooms are alive. At 9 o’clock a 2 year-old little boy in diapers scampers out of a doorway quickly chased by a doting mother. Another woman has pulled a chair from the room and has placed it outside. She sits smoking, the humid air of an early New Orleans summer failing to dissipate her exhaust and sending a cloud spiraling high above. Across the parking lot a man sits solitary against a wall reading some papers. An eviction letter or new bill? A late child support notice? A pink slip? He rubs his eyes and takes another pull from a paper bag surrounding a beer. It’s obvious the weight of the world is falling directly on his broad shoulders and his sun-beaten and tattooed arms are having a beast of a time keeping up.
Marty’s room has the tools of caged survival; a dingy hot plate, a sink filled with dishes caked in food, dirty clothes thrown over a stained chair, a garbage can filled with convenience store wrappers. He’s done here, back on the streets. After 10 ten days and an evaporated bank account, a disabled veteran returns to a deserted, rat infested alley. The hegira is over.View Post
It’s the most physically demanding, mentally challenging and exhausting kind of social work there is. While the greatest occupational hazards of a lot of my colleagues are the occasional paper cut or the draining hum of overhead florescent lighting, I managed to stab my foot with a rusty roofing nail last week. It was stupid. I’ll admit it. Instead of looking up at the boarded windows of the abandoned school building, I should have been paying attention to the solid ground beneath my feet. The result was a quarter inch incision through my sneaker that quickly provided a sloppy red pool of blood, permanently staining the insole of my Adidas. I was breaking them in for the upcoming kickball season, one of the few things I do to enjoy myself.
It got me thinking about self-care and the all too social worky terms of boundaries and self-awareness. Our hours can suck. We finish up late and all too often we start early, getting called into a morning meeting after being out all night crawling through post-Katrina wreckage, searching for society’s cast-offs.
I’m feeling a certain kinship lately with the air traffic control community. Their exhausting, dynamic and objectionable schedule is the latest headache for the FAA administration as they’ve found their attendant duties have been met with the unfortunate human need for sleep. After almost 13 years tending bar, I feel like I’ve whipped my circadian rhythms into a minor physiological nuisance. However, the mastery of my personal physiological nuances fails to overcome a festering resentment for those whose work schedule is as predictable as a clock and when the hands meet 5 and 12 they whither into their own personal Margaritaville heavens outside the office. We don’t get that. Instead, my real life begins at the rather lonely hour of 2 AM. If I’m finishing up some end of the day stuff, it is not unusual to pilot my scooter into my driveway around 3. It’s not all bad. My commute is a breeze.
What would happen if one wasn’t able to fully recuperate before or after work? Do planes crash? Do feet get stabbed? I don’t know but two years crawling around abandoned buildings has taught me one thing: it’s best to be vigilant, and vigilance is a delicate mental and physical state.
Somewhere right now there is an air traffic controller pulling a graveyard after an 8 hour turn around smiling. He knows how I feel.View Post
I’ve got a headache. It all started with a conversation through the threadbare screen door of an abandoned house.
A week ago myself and Clarence scampered over a chain-link fence, trail blazed through an overgrown side yard, pushed open a crumbling back door falling off the hinges, danced across rotted floorboards and illuminated the well-established cot. Bedrolls and tattered mattresses in abandoned houses mean nothing to us until we meet the person who claims it; thus our little midnight conversation.
“Hello? Homeless outreach! It’s Mike from UNITY.” I yell.
“And Katy too!” Katy shoots me that Katy Quigley look, assuming I forgot she’s standing right beside me. It’s the same look that freezes her ten year-old son and instills the fear of motherhood in a 31 year-old man.
“And Katy too!” I yell back smiling, a desperate and half-hearted attempt to placate my partner.
After a minute or two of making a general racket, our front stoop pleas are met with an answer.
“Shoosh! Be quiet! My neighbors be hearing and I don’t need them to be coming and shooting me!” It’s the slightly drunk, slightly psychotic and slightly unnerving response I wasn’t expecting.
A short, rambling and incoherent conversation is finished with an agreed upon meeting tomorrow afternoon at Fig and Eagle street. That’s fine. Its 11:30 at night, there isn’t a streetlight for two blocks and the newly hatched mosquitoes are doing their best to imitate flying syringes. Thus our little rendezvous at Fig and Eagle.
For those who don’t know where Fig and Eagle is, I’ll explain. You go straight down Claiborne Avenue, hang a lefty at purgatory, go past Hades and enter the infernal regions. It’s where the living mortgaged their souls to the crack pipe and the zombies have track marks creeping up their arms. Like anywhere in New Orleans, watch out for potholes. Two more days left in an already long month and I’m feeling the tension on the corner.
“Here’s our guy.” Katy states as we pull to the corner. He’s wearing army fatigues, rubber fishing boots, a camouflaged New York Yankees cap and two pairs of sun glasses. He’s sitting alone on wooden steps that lean onto the side of a rotting abandoned house. He’s screaming into the wind, oblivious to the prejudiced looks he getting from the ten addicts huddled across the street.
He stands up and embraces us as we walk toward him. His greeting is punctuated with “friend,” “homey” and “sweetie”. He screams some unintelligible insults at the addicts and talks about “Getting mine.” Grasping a 10 oz bottle of Night Train stowed in a paper bag, a strong odor of cheap wine escapes his mouth and he’s unsteady on his feet. Whatever was holding the attention of 10 chronic inebriates and mental health patients before we arrived is quickly forgotten. I imagine it’s kind of like HBO for the disaffected as they tune in to a new episode of the crazy guy who sits on the rotting steps all day.
Twelve years behind a bar I’ve learned a little something about redirecting the drunk. A thorough bio-psycho-social reveals a startling 50 plus year history of co-morbid mental illness, systems failures and medical catastrophe. He’s a great client. Exactly the kind of head ache I’m looking for. My real problem is the office.
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to apply my clinical skills sitting on one of the most violent street corners in New Orleans. In a perfect world I would be surrounded by my colleagues dashing to copy machines and answering phone calls in a temperature controlled office, all the while sitting in their comfortable ergonomically correct desk chairs. Instead, I have a psychotic alcoholic attempting to recite his life story while simultaneously attempting to keep the neighborhood elements at bay for a desperate 30 minutes. As the addicts wander in and out of abandoned houses and the hours countdown to check day, we’re all counting the minutes. I’m especially concerned about the young man who keeps circling the block in the murdered out Chrysler with 22 inch rims. I know he’s not selling Girl Scout cookies.
“Hey we’re done. Let’s get back to the office.” I tell Katy, one of the few times she’ll ever hear that.
“I’ve got a headache.”View Post
Two in the afternoon, 38 degrees and a blustery southern wind pushed Katy and I to play a little cleanup. A brutal winter by New Orleans standards forced the Abandoned Building team out of our normal routine of searching dilapidated houses and into the emergency freeze plan, temporarily halting our post-Katrina search and rescue. We had call-ins stacking up and another four hours before we needed to fire up the outreach van to shuffle our clients out of their respective doorways and bedrolls and into an emergency shelter.
Our first verification brought us to the old Illinois Central Railroad tracks, a set of rails that bisect the poor neighborhood of Lower Mid-City with its even poorer cousins to the south of Gert Town, Pigeon Town and Hollygrove. As we walk along the tracks toward the rail yard of the famous City of New Orleans train and with the imposing Superdome peeking over the horizon, a set of palmetto trees hides a well established camp. First verification of the day is done!
“Is there anyone else staying around?” Katy asks the gentleman. It’s the golden question of every outreach worker.
“Yeah, further down the tracks is a small levee. There’s some dude there, but he’s kind of strange. Never talks. There’s a garbage heap he sleeps on,” the gentleman explains.
Strange guys who avoid talking and live in garbage heaps are right up our alley. “Let’s put that on for tonight?” Katy tells me more than asks.
Ten hours later that clock strikes midnight and the thermometer hits freezing. The southern wind is winning despite the litany of profanity I hurl at it, and even Katy is throwing looks of disgust. It’s as good a time as any to check a garbage heap.
We navigate the van over the cratered street past the row of abandoned warehouses. A quick zipper-up and gulp of lukewarm coffee, and we walk over to the heap. Our flashlights illuminate the discarded Big Shot soda bottles, tattered clothes, moldy food containers and a sheet of construction plastic.
“Hello. Homeless Outreach! Anybody home?” I shout through a jaw clenched against the south wind.
Nothing. It’s dark. It’s freezing. It would be beyond crazy to sleep here. I turn back to the car.
“No, man.” Katy stops me. “The plastic. That could be a body. Seriously.”
“You think the plastic?”
“Yeah. It’s the right size. He could be in there.” Katy explains.
I turn around to placate my partner and do my damndest to make a little more noise. I point my flashlight at both ends of the plastic and rudely make life uncomfortable for what I believe to be a pile of frozen garbage.
“You hear that?” Katy looks at me.
I quickly realize that under the plastic is a body. Our guy is there. He’s grunting, but not talking.
“Hey man! You got to get up! It’s freezing. You’re going to die out here!” I yell to the man through the plastic.
My pathetic plea is met with silence. I increase the stakes.
“Hey man! You got to give me something. You all right? You got to get up! It’s too cold for this shit!”
I get nothing. No movement. No grunt. Nothing.
Three long minutes of begging, pleading and cussing is met with a plastic sheet flapping in the wind and a silent pile of garbage. We’ve got to figure something out and fast.
We walk back to the van. “What should we do?” Katy inquires.
Here’s the million dollar question. What do you do?
We could leave him and hope he makes it through the night. Surely, that would have been the easiest thing to do. If he doesn’t make it through the night, we can always say we at least tried.
We could throw a blanket on him and hope he uses it. Maybe.
After a quiet minute soaking up the stale warm air of the van’s heater, I do what I don’t want to do.
“Police Operator 236, what is your emergency?”
“Hi, this is Mike. I’m an outreach worker. I’ve got a guy who’s unresponsive. I think he’s 103m,” I explain.
“Is he dangerous?”
“I’m not sure.” It’s always best to be vague when dealing with authorities. Otherwise your call gets sent to the bottom of the dispatch stack under grandma’s lost cat and a lady complaining about broken streetlights.
“Okay, we’ll send someone out.”
Ten minutes later we can see the flashing blue lights blocks away heading in our direction. “Damn, it’s cold,” I think to myself.
The first officer arrives and slams a flood light in our direction. He jumps out. “What we got?”
Katy explains the situation as she points to the heap. Another unit arrives and lights up the desolate bricks of warehouses. Two more cars arrive with their respective flashers. NOPD rolls deep.
I escort a small brigade of cops over a small levee and angle toward the pile. “Under the plastic,” I explain.
“Is he dead?” The young cop asks.
“I don’t think so. It’s too cold for this shit.” The cop nods.
I fade back as a team of officers descend on a freezing homeless guy.
As soon as I reach the van, a bearded man is being held on each arm by a burly cop. He’s having trouble walking; the cold clearly zapped his strength.
“Where you want him? He’s soaked,” the officer asks as Katy opens the outreach van.
“Here’s fine.” I motion toward the van as the man accepts our nylon seats instead of the caged plastic of a police cruiser. Doors close with the heater turned to full blast.
Lights are turned off, and units start to pull away.
As the first young cop walks back to his car, he asks, “He would have died. How’d you find him, anyway?”
“It’s what we do,” I reply.
I find it’s always best to be vague when dealing with the authorities.
Mike MillerView Post
I never sleep well on these nights. After 13 hours working the streets, an inordinate amount of stale coffee and a lingering sense of doubt, it’s kind of hard to sleep. At three in the morning I start thinking about the list. Every city has one and somebody has to track it. In New Orleans, I’m that guy. It’s the homeless death list. The list closed 2010 with the addition of 8 homeless young people who perished in a fire in the Upper 9th ward trying to keep warm on a freeze night. The youngest was 17. The oldest so far is 30; three weeks later the officials have still not determined the identities of two of the bodies.
My first addition to the list was eleven hours into the New Years when a client of mine was hit by a cab going to work cleaning up after a Hornets game. The minimum wage kept his abandoned house stocked with canned goods.
So the night sky is cloudless and the thermometer is dropping. In less than three hours it will bottom out at 28 degrees, threatening a record low. I know this is the kind of cold that kills. I know that a couple of years ago 28 degrees produced two hypothermic deaths. I know because I put them on the list and wondered what we could have done different. How come we didn’t look inside the dumpster behind the abandoned mall in New Orleans East? How did we miss the lady sleeping on a cold bench on a deserted strip of park two blocks from the river? How many dumpsters in the city can we check? How many benches? I don’t even want to think about the 55,000 abandoned buildings. Four outreach workers have been out all night pulling people out of doorways, climbing through weed choked lots, scampering under wharfs and haunting back alleys. I know we didn’t get everyone. I know we can’t.
I never sleep well on nights like this. I’m pretty sure it’s because of the list.View Post