Last week the sleeve of Eve’s donated down jacket showed a mixture of burned feathers and melted nylon. She reeked of the kind of smoke we usually associate with good times around the campfire – only we knew it was nothing of the sort. The burned coat and strong smoke odors were the result of flying embers and the residual smoke of a survival fire.

The destruction of Eve’s coat, and the near-destruction of her being, was from the same oil barrel survival fire she and up to a half dozen others sleep next to each and every night of this seemingly endless winter. Each night the dwellers of this abandoned three-sided garage sit, lay, drink and talk around a sawed-off oil barrel filled with smoldering portions of timber and beams gleaned from the adjacent abandoned buildings.

While the blazing fire within the barrel assures the small community’s survival from the elements, we all know it also holds the ever-present danger of robbing them of their lives – much like the tragic fire that took the souls of the eight young people at the beginning of the year.

The record number of cold nights has taxed area emergency shelters, homeless transportation systems and, most of all – the homeless men and women who are living in the streets and abandoned buildings of New Orleans.

Homeless since Katrina ravaged her home in coastal Mississippi, the multitude of Eve’s medical and mental health issues already had placed her at the top of UNITYs Registry of the most vulnerable people. She was in line to be housed within Rebuilding Communities, a hurricane recovery program providing supportive housing for the homeless, and receive case management services in addition to housing. The frigid weather and the survival fires only amplified Eve’s already significant vulnerabilities.

While still reeking of smoke from last night’s survival fire, Eve came into the office today to sign the lease for her new apartment. She was wearing a newly donated coat, a faux leopard-skin hat, cute boots that she had stashed away for an important event, and a small black back pack. Surrounded by her patient and caring team of housing specialist and case managers, Eve glowed and stammered as she met her new landlord. Decidedly excited, Eve was equally nervous – this is a huge step after five and a half years of homelessness.

Tonight, as I join my coworkers scouring the city for those without a place to stay during this prolonged winter, I will pray that Eve sleeps well in the warmth and comfort of her new apartment – far, far away from the survival fires of the frigid night.

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