By Mike Miller, UNITY’s director of supportive-housing placement
There is one simple vindication for all the daily frustrations of being an outreach worker — the disjointed, the systems of broken systems, the personal ravages of the street of those living on it.
This last blog of the year pays homage to all the empty doorways, benches and abandoned buildings throughout New Orleans — places that were once home to some of our hardest-to-house homeless people.
This year, we decimated our “ Tenacious Ten” list – those people who have, sometimes for years, resisted our best efforts to house them.
We still have our holdouts, but it’s time to celebrate our successes:
• The empty doorway above represents four years of collective outreach. The elderly gentleman who called these bricks home was so paranoid it took two years just to get his name. There weren’t any neighbors advocating for him and the surrounding businesses never took stock of the old man and his tattered blanket. The only people aware of his feral existence was our group of outreach workers and the occasional late-working lawyer of the law office he slept in front of.
He’s now housed.
• In front of a fast food restaurant serving thousands daily on one of the busiest streets of New Orleans, an elderly woman sat stoic in a dingy festival chair. In her late xities, she refused all placements– emergency, transitional, family re-unification and otherwise. Five years of freeze plans, a few hurricanes (graciously weathered in the nearby corner bar) and the brutal humidity of New Orleans summers barely dented her over-dressed resolve for street habitation.
Through luck, timing and focus; she too is housed.
• Another case was the developmentally disabled man who roamed the hospital district in secondhand suits until finally collapsing in exhaustion in front of a heat grate outside a shuttered VA hospital.
The morning waitresses of a famed 24-hour dinner get the assist on this one. His 15-year odyssey of chain-smoking and block cutting ended when they wouldn’t give him his morning eggs anymore until he worked with UNITY. Sometimes it takes a village (and an admirable Western Omelet).
• Another highlight was the 68 year-old man, wrists covered in hospital bracelets and pants caked with feces. His 15-year jaunt with vascular dementia, Mad Dog 20/20 and leaving hospitals AMA (Against Medical Advice) ended when outreach convinced a clinic doctor that he really needed a nursing home. After a brief, 15-hour day sitting in the firm plastic chairs of the urgent care clinic in the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans, his homelessness ended with the incomprehensible signature of a disinterested and reluctant internal medicine specialist. Not done with passion or conviction. But housed.
I’ve always said that the moment a chronically homeless client gets their keys is anti-climatic. Usually, a client takes the keys, walks around the apartment, mutters an intangible thank you and then you leave. The glossy photos of cute clients smiling joyfully and holding their new keys are few and far between.
Returning to your cluttered and over-crowded office carved out of a utility closet, you flick the dried mouse turds off your desk and wonder want just happened. Years of rapport building, advocating, collecting mountains of documentation and case-planning abruptly end. You move onto your next client.
Sometimes, the only thing you have to show for your work is one more empty doorway. Honestly, that’s more than enough.View Post
By Mike Miller, UNITY’s director of supportive-housing placement
Sometimes I have trouble explaining what I do for a living. When I say I work with the homeless, people often search for an appropriate response.
Usually I get: “So what exactly does that mean?”
Or sometimes: “Some people don’t really want help, right?”
People in our community confront homelessness daily as they traverse their daily routines of work, school, and home. I have no doubt that everyone wants to do something, to acknowledge the humanity sprawled on the sidewalk or huddled under a tattered blanket. Sometimes we give a dollar or two. Sometimes we lie and say we don’t have any change. In a country of so much privilege, we wonder how someone can fall so low and become so desperate.
Yeah, I’m a social worker. Often I’m also a psychotherapist, a substance abuse counselor, a realtor, a pharmacist, a taxi driver, an EMT, a parole officer. Sometimes even a cop. Mostly, though, I’m just a nephew, brother, or grandson.
The picture above is my Uncle Jesse. He’s not my literal uncle, that’s just his name. He’s been Uncle Jesse since I found him sleeping under a wharf outside the French Quarter or on his wet piece of cardboard behind the ferry terminal. He was Uncle Jesse when we visited him in the hospital, stood next to him in homeless court, and introduced him to his new landlord.
We’ve been a lot to Uncle Jesse; a blog post can’t do the work justice. I just hope a picture will do.
The “before” picture on the top is my old friend the day we started assessing him and beginning the process of housing him. The “after” pictures, below, show Uncle Jesse and me standing outside his apartment, at the moment he was told he would get his disability from Social Security. The “after” pictures represent six months of work, dozens of appointments, mountains of paperwork and connections to services. Most importantly, these pictures are proof of the healing power of a home.
What I do is not about homelessness. It’s about working with our sickest, most vulnerable brothers and sisters. That’s how we end homelessness.
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.
Today’s blog is by UNITY outreach worker Demetra Phoenix.
The day started as any other work day would. I went to an outreach meeting first thing in the morning. On the agenda was the weekly discussion of how to get into housing those homeless people we are most worried about because of their severe mental illness and medical problems. A feeling of defeat came upon me as Ms. Gwen’s name was called. As I sat there listening to the expectations of my co-workers, I thought to myself this is too hard.
I had first met Ms. Gwen during the evacuation for Hurricane Gustav in September 2008. I saw this frail-looking woman walking down the street and asked if she need a ride to the evacuation point. She replied, “okay.” I made a mental note to look for her again when we returned to the city. And the work began. On numerous occasions I approached her in the place she was squatting in, and she would shoo me away. “Leave me alone.” “I don’t want to be bothered.” Over and over again for four years that’s what I heard.
Hanging over my head at the outreach meeting was one close but failed attempt at housing her a year ago. I’m thinking I’m not strong enough for this. But yet, once again, I press on and I say to myself to lean on the strength of my co-workers. I leave the outreach meeting scared of another rejection from Ms. Gwen but willing to face it at any cost for her sake. Upon approaching her outside the fast-food restaurant where she hangs out, she looked up at me with eyes that were heavy with exhaustion. I smiled a little and began to speak in a soft timid voice. I asked if she wanted to take a ride with me to look at the new UNITY building. All of sudden a gentle breeze began to blow and she arose out of her chair without a word and began walking to the car. I was in shock. I stood frozen in one spot. She turned around and said, “yes, I’m coming with you” and began to chatter away.
I began to shake from excitement, saying over and over to myself she’s trusting me yet again, I can’t fail this time. After the initial shock, I sprang into action fueled with adrenalin. I called upon my trusty co-workers who I knew would have my back to let the team at the new Rosa Keller Building know that I am coming and that Ms. Gwen was with me and that we needed to show her one of the units at the building right away. I knew the staff at the Rosa Keller Building were busy due to the Ribbon-Cutting ceremony that afternoon but I was sincerely hoping that they would have the time to accommodate me with this request. On the ride over to the building, Ms. Gwen kept me very busy with conversation — which was very unusual — about everything going on in the city.
Upon reaching the building, she was greeted by Heather, the Building Director, and Emily, a Case Manager, with huge smiles on their faces, welcoming her to the Rosa Keller building. She walked in, all zipped up in the summer heat, wearing a coat with the hood over her head, and began to tour the apartment with an occasional nod of her head. She then turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I’ve never thought in all my life that I could have a place so beautiful.” I smiled at her and said, “it’s yours if you want it.” But I didn’t want her to think that I was forcing her into that unit so I said, “Let’s go and look at the other floor plan and you can choose which one you want.” We looked at the other unit and she turned to me and said, “The other one is the one made just right for me.” She left the apartment with me to complete all necessary paperwork. I told her that the apartment would be hers but it may take a week once all the paperwork is approved. By this time I was floating on air, the breeze was in full swing outside, and the sun was shining just as bright as my smile. She patiently waited while we did the paperwork. I offered to get her something to eat and she said no that was ok. I told her I would be back at 2 p.m. to pick her up to go to the grand opening of the building, and I dropped her back at her squat.
As 2 p.m. drew closer, I began to get scared again thinking, Oh Lord, she has changed her mind. But when I pulled up, she began gathering all her belongings. My eyes got big. I said, “Oh Lord, she thinks she’s moving in today. What am I going to do?” I expressed my anxiety to Kathleen, our Supportive Housing Registry Director, and told her that if this doesn’t happen today I will lose her and her trust. I could not let this happen again. Kathleen sprang into action, pulling out all the stops and getting everyone on board with making this happen today. Ann, the Property Manager for the building, began to work her magic getting the required approvals. When Ann called Kathleen and me into her office and gave us the good news, we began to cry like babies. I said “it’s going to happen, I can’t believe this is happening today.”
I went back to Ms. Gwen and told her that she can move into her apartment today. She looked out across the balcony and said, “What a wonderful view.” I said, “Please don’t leave,” and she replied, “I’m not going anywhere — I’m home.”
Because of everyone’s extraordinary efforts, she is home.
I went to visit her a couple of days later and she was standing in her apartment cooking dinner, wearing a bright- colored dress (no coat!) and an equally bright smile. She said to me, “I’ve never been so happy in all my life” and gave me a hug. I can only say it was the glory of the Lord shining through her that made this happen.View Post
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 was almost 1 a.m. and Lamar was lying on a piece of cardboard, with late night traffic speeding 20 feet above the light blanket that was covering his slight frame. The traffic noise, Lamar’s soft voice and my own hearing challenges necessitated Lamar patiently, but listlessly, repeating pertinent information several times. As the multiple facets of his situation finally emerged — debilitating brain disorder from birth, an untreated immune deficiency disease, prior hospitalization for mental illness — it became very apparent that Lamar was in grave danger of dying on the street.
Angela Patterson, our Deputy Director whose heart of gold shines through her face, stood with me in the dark night as I gave this man my most solemn promise that we would help him get connected to specialized case management services and that we would help him get housing. But his eyes told me everything he didn’t verbalize: he didn’t care who I was or who Angela was and he did not believe me. Neither hostile nor angry, his eyes were more alarmingly hollow and hopeless. How many years of broken promises led to these bleak unbelieving eyes?
As we walked away, my promise to help hung in the night air like an ethereal echo, with no real substance. To Lamar it was just another well-meant, but empty, assurance. I knew that the burden was on me to follow through on my promise. And I also know that with Lamar’s multiple medical, mental health and substance use challenges, it would take a team to really pull it all together.
The first challenge was finding Lamar again. The next day I returned several times to the space where he was sleeping. I found his cardboard and the thin blanket, but no Lamar. Mike Miller, Travers Kurr and Clarence White — my coworkers on the Abandoned Building/ Night Outreach team — returned at night, and no Lamar. Throughout that week and into the next we searched in vain.
While the search for Lamar continued, Angela began laying the groundwork for his swift transition to housing services, and coworker Demetria Phoenix concentrated on expertly managing very limited resources so that necessary respite in the form of a hotel room could be secured once we found Lamar. As the days ticked by, however, I began to despair of finding Lamar again and, almost more importantly, I feared adding another layer to Lamar’s learned hopelessness.
Almost a week and a half later, I was driving in the general vicinity of where Lamar was lying that first night and saw a group of men gathered. While I dared not to hope, I pulled over and, thankfully, Lamar was among the men! I opened the passenger door, reintroduced myself (we all look different in the daylight), asked him if he would be willing to gather his things and ride with me a few blocks to UNITY’s outreach office. He picked up a brown coat (his only possession) and got in my car.
That afternoon, because of the exceptional legwork of UNITY’s entire Welcome Home outreach team, we were able to work with Will Baum, director of UNITY’s City Shelter Plus Care program (a federal grant through the City of New Orleans providing long-term rent assistance tied to ongoing case management services), and complete all the paperwork necessary to get Lamar approved for Permanent Supportive Housing. We were able to make a next-day appointment with Jacob Rickoll, a wonderful case manager at NO AIDS Task Force, who committed to walking with Lamar through the labyrinth of medical and social services he will be need to stay healthy and stably housed, and (thanks to people donating to UNITY) checked Lamar into a local hotel where he would have a safe, clean, and pleasant place to rest until all systems were cleared to get him into an apartment of his own.
The following Thursday – after a quick visit with Joe Heeren-Mueller at UNITYs Warehouse where Lamar chose a small number of furnishings and comforts for his new home – I helped Lamar move his few belongings into a beautiful little light-filled apartment! After we walked through the doorway, Lamar stood for a long moment and surveyed the small kitchen, bath and bright living area. When he turned back to me, Lamar slowly lifted his apartment key above his head and gave me a smile that was so big that the previously saturation of hopelessness was totally erased from his eyes.
Lamar is just one of the many, many vulnerable men and women that the outreach team spoke to one recent night who are now either successfully housed or deep in the process of being housed. So many people are responsible for the successful housing of any one individual, I was reluctant to start naming names as I wrote this blog. I am SO incredibly thankful to the entire talented Welcome Home outreach team who perform the outreach and paperwork necessary for all of the Lamars we encounter. Generous groups and organizations from throughout the area continue to prepare a daily meal for the men and women who are so disabled that they must stay in a low-cost hotel for respite until housing is secured.
I am full of gratitude for the Rebuilding Communities team who provide a multitude of technical and arduous tasks to ensure safe, healthy housing for the most vulnerable people we meet, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP) teams and case managers who work with so many of the men, women and families we encounter on the streets and abandoned buildings, and for our partner organizations that provide Permanent Supportive Housing with case management services throughout the area. The emergency, transitional and day shelters in the UNITY network assist immeasurably as they not only provide needed services, but also avenues to re-connect with our clients when we have difficulty finding them again after a late-night intake process.
As was once pointed out to me, while outreach workers may arrogantly consider ourselves the ‘heart and soul’ of UNITY, the Canal Street office is the ‘bread and butter’ of UNITY – securing, managing and transparently reporting on the funds and resources necessary to back up late night promises. So, in addition to their leadership, advocacy, and affordable housing development roles, I thank all my coworkers in UNITY’s Canal Street office.
And of course, I am so appreciative for the individuals, foundations, government funders and groups – including UNITY’s Board of Directors — who give of their time, talents and treasures to ensure we have tokens, meal cards, and sleeping bags for those in the process of getting housing, as well as sheets, can openers, and furniture for those who are moving into their new apartments.
The last thing Lamar said to me as I left him in his new apartment was: “Don’t forget about me.” As you can tell, I won’t, and I thank all of you for providing UNITY with the personal and financial resources to remember all of the Lamars and to keep promises made in the wee small hours.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
In south Louisiana, we don’t worry too much about not having enough water. Too much water? Well that is many totally different stories for another day. But not having enough water? That thought rarely even crosses most New Orleanians’ minds…
The overpasses and the oaks were dripping after the 30-minute afternoon cloudburst. The spray from the road made a background hiss to harmonize with the bass thumping of the wipers.
“Hey, why don’t you pull over right there.” More a strong suggestion than a question. Signal, pull right, and slide into a parking place amid a curb filled with barely-working vehicles.
We looked upon the weathered, two-storied used-to-be-salmon-colored home with the sides caving in, and the water dripping off all sides irrespective of the rusted-out gutters. We have passed this abandoned house several times this month as we worked with multiple people in the neighborhood, but have never really had the time to look inside.
On this day we were running a few minutes early (this never happens) to meet with a client, so we had a few minutes leeway. Without speaking, I went to the front then left side of the building, Travers went to the right side, and Mike made a beeline toward the back. Travers and I tried our respective sides to no avail and waited to hear Mike’s boisterous voice from the rear of the property. No Mike and no sound. We headed to the back of the building.
As we turned the final corner, we were surprised to view, through a dripping willow, a gaping opening in what was left of the rear wall of the house. Within this fissure Mike was speaking with an older gentleman. Mike’s softest voice met the man’s incredibly soft voice tone for tone.
Mr. Michaels is his name.
Mr. Michaels had lived inside this gaping-holed, caved-walled, extremely dilapidated building for over three years. He spent each and every day riding his bike throughout the city, crawling under houses and slogging through alleyways collecting aluminum cans and scrap metal. With a voice so gentle that you had to lean in to hear, Mr. Michaels shared something with me that I never really thought about:
Mr. Michaels explained that a person needs at least one gallon of water a day to survive. If you live in an abandoned building with no running water, that means you need to buy your drinking water. At $1.45 a gallon – the best price at the stores within bike distance from his home – this is almost $44 a month! That’s a lot of aluminum cans! Even if he did get food stamps (which he didn’t) I quickly realized that water alone would account for almost a quarter of his monthly stamps.
It was with great joy that several weeks later during a light morning rain I found myself driving Mr. Michaels and Michele Jackson, a UNITY Housing Specialist, to look at possible apartments. The first apartment we saw would not have passed the strict standards necessary for UNITY to rent, but the second one was perfect!
Within the neighborhood that Mr. Michaels selected, the apartment was a neat half double, with a small sliver of yard out back where Mr. Michaels could attach a hose to water the 12 tomato plants that he hadn’t even dared to mention he wanted because he was so scared he wouldn’t have the space or access to water.
But best of all – in Mr. Michael’s misting eyes – the small, tidy apartment had a large kitchen sink where he could quench his thirst at any hour, and a large bathtub where he could soak his weary bones in gallons and gallons of hot water each night. Every night.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