Ash Wednesday: Noah's Wish

I hope Mitch Landrieu does something for this city, or else God’s gonna wash it away.

Welcome to office Mr. Landrieu, these are the words of a man squatting right downtown in the Central Business District (CBD) last week.  Despite battling bipolar disorder and the general alcohol abuse that grips many of us  during Mardi Gras, he apparently keeps up on his politics (the election was only five days before this statement).  He also apparently believes in a retributive God not above using floods to clear out a city failing to pay heed to His word.

We habitually change our client’s names for this blog in accordance with professional standards regarding client confidentiality.  So, let’s call this client Noah (not his real name, I promise).

I know a lot of people reading this are already upset by the man’s statement about God washing the city away.  At face value this isn’t significantly different than the claims made by fundamentalist Christian groups such as Repent America that attributed Hurricane Katrina’s death and destruction in New Orleans as God’s plan to end the annual Southern Decadence and Mardi Gras celebrations that happen here due to the alleged debauchery, drunkenness, nudity, sodomy and other carnal sins that are supposedly celebrated during them.  (For anyone who hasn’t been here for Mardi Gras it is actually family and community oriented despite the Girls Gone Wild footage most people think of.  And despite my being a straight-male, I love decadence and the social openness and inclusion that it represents even if it is gay-oriented.  Count me in for participation in both).

No, our modern Noah, threatening another divine flood, was not speaking from a position of judgmental religious fundamentalism… at least not from the typical right-leaning evangelical damnation we’re so used to when attributing natural disaster to divine justice.  Instead, he was speaking more from a sense of the Gospel of the Poor (Gospel of Luke, see chapters 4 and 13 among others).  Our Noah was talking about needing a new leader (Landrieu) to finally do something for the poor in this town (it is, by the way, usually the poor who can’t get out when the storms come, and the poor are not necessarily those like myself who charge a bit of debauchery to their Visa or MasterCard from time to time in this fair city).

Noah threatened this flood twenty minutes after I met him, which itself was a first for Mike and I.  We were checking on an old five story building in the CBD.  Nestled among some of the most expensive real estate in New Oreleans – the proposed site for the Trump Tower  is not more than half a mile away – you would not think homeless people slept there, unless you also have the habit of walking back alleys and testing every boarded-up door way for a loose piece of plywood.  I made it to the second floor where sits a nice apartment that looks like it may have been a demonstration model for proposed condominium redevelopment.  On my way there, expecting to see evidence of squatting, I heard voices.  I paused, preferring for people to walk toward me in the open rather than wanting to step through a door way without being able to see whomever it was speaking.  Surprise, surprise, two uniformed police officers and a squatter wearing a strand of Mardi Gras beads emerged.  The lead officer was clearly surprised by my presence as much as I was by his, and hesitated; I thought this might be the day Mike finally got his wish and I’d be headed to jail.  Not having a business card on me, I unzipped my jacket showing my uniform (just a goldenrod, screen-printed t-shirt) and said “Hi, Officer.  Homeless outreach here.  Looks like a lot of people are staying here now, huh?”

The officer indicated that, yes indeed, a lot of people are known to use this buildings, and that we could help the gentleman they were taking out as soon as they finished writing up a court summons for a criminal trespass charge.

15 or 20 minutes later, and Mike and I were in the van with Noah, who was just happy he didn’t get arrested again.  Yes, I said again.  He reported that the previous Friday night (six days earlier) he and six others were arrested in the same building or one nearby (it was not clear which building given the rapidity of his speech) and spent a few nights in jail before pleading guilty at arraignment.  This time, instead of arrest, he only got a ticket (a good sign in terms of our desire to see homelessness and crimes related to homeless existence decriminalized). 

I don’t believe in prophets.  But I do think people can say things that may well be prophetic.  I’m not referring to Noah’s threat that the city could be washed away if Mayor Landrieu doesn’t help the poor here.  No, it was what Noah said right before that as he manically reflected on his experiences living homeless in this town since last November:

This place is so hard on us homeless.  They run you out from under the bridge, then they run you out of abandoned buildings.  The shelter is always full.  Where can I just go and be?

This is the side I don’t think most people understand about homelessness, and even those of us who work with it every day often forget it.  We don’t like seeing a dirty, disheveled man sleeping on the corner – why can’t he go somewhere else?  We don’t like seeing encampments of thirty to a hundred people on an empty lot – isn’t there a shelter for them to sleep in?  We don’t like the idea that someone might be using the vacant building next door for shelter from the elements rather than allowing it to go untouched and without use or social purpose – why don’t the owners board that up better?

But if people can’t live out in the open, if the shelters are full to capacity, and if we choose to allow thousands of buildings to go un-used while thousands go homeless, where do we expect them to go, where do we expect them to exist?  Some people think of jail as the answer, forgetting the horrors that were debt peonage and debtors prisons a few centuries ago – right or wrong, birth is the one thing in this life you don’t pay for, and as I see it no one ought have to pay merely to justify their existence in public spaces. 

Here’s hoping on this Ash Wednesday that, in accordance with my Noah’s ill-phrased request, the new government does something for the poor in this town other than expanding the capacity of Orleans Parish Prison.

-Shamus

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