It’s a little off the radar, tucked between two abandoned salvage yards littered with rusting hulks of Cadillac’s, Fords and Chevys. The nearest neighbor is almost a mile away and that is the rabid-looking mutt that guards a distant industrial yard. The one and a half lane road is more frequented by dingy, soot-covered semi-trucks than homeless outreach vans. Out here you can actually smell the swamp that surrounds our city and hear the critters scrambling because of your presence. Only a few miles from the shimmering office towers of downtown, you can witness the crushing reality of southern rural homelessness. This is New Orleans, albeit the New Orleans few experience.
Driving down this road in the eastern part of the city, hugging the shoulder for passing trucks, you’ll see the 12 foot thicket that borders the road and hides the inhabitant within. There aren’t any water lines out here as the water was too high to leave a visible mark. Katrina inundated the surrounding swamp with a deluge of 15 foot storm surge; four years later leaving only broken cypress trees and overturned autos as the daily reminder of her power. The dead cypress trees struggle against the swampy under growth, while the cars are absorbed into it. Ms. Louis lives here.
While driving down this work road after spending the morning in an old abandoned hobo camp, I noticed a pair of bicycle tires heading into the swamp. Pulling the van into a deserted and overgrown driveway, parking next to a scrappy looking camper with tattered vinyl mosquito netting flapping in the wind, I walked deep into the lot anticipating a new encounter. It’s these moments that outreach workers wonder if we’ll be met with the friendly apprehension of a new client or the business end of a shot-gun. I was hoping for the former as I cautiously made my presence known to the inhabitant or inhabitants.
As I walked further, in the most delicate and non-threatening voice I could muster, I yelled “Homeless Outreach! Outreach! Anybody home?”
Just then a small, elderly black woman with Mary Poppins boots and an immaculately pressed nightgown emerged from behind a pile of rusted shopping carts. I introduced myself and explained what I do. Her response, “Oh, that’s nice.” Living in a flooded out trailer without electricity, filling buckets of water toted from an abandoned faucet and with mosquitoes lunching on exposed skin, it never occurred to her that she was homeless. In fact, Ms. Louis explained that she was blessed.
When the violence of Katrina came through this area, her trailer was the only one on the road that was not toppled over and claimed by the encroaching swamp. She was able to meet dozens of volunteers, many of whom worshiped and prayed with her in the midst of post-hurricane destruction. “We did Church right here! Right where you’re standing!” she exclaimed.
She said that she didn’t lose anything in the storm; no friends, no family and no possessions. Ms. Louis explained that she has lived on this lot for 10 years, well before storm surge entered her world without knocking. Ms. Louis explained that when she came back she found everything wet, but intact. She just dried it out and moved on. Most importantly, she moved back in.
My newest client is a 62 year-old, 95 pound women who lives in a flooded out trailer on the edge of a swamp. She said she doesn’t need any help but she said she would love for us to check in on her. It will be my pleasure.