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.