Today’s blog post is by Katy Quigley, who has joined Shamus, Mike and Clarence on the abandoned building outreach team.
“Good Night beautiful boy. I love you.”
As I bend over to kiss my 9 year old son I realize that teamwork is one of the tools my family is perfecting as we all make adjustments with my new job as an Outreach Worker with UNITY’s Abandoned Building project. An hour or so after that goodnight kiss I am in a very, very different world from shampoo scented hair and warm cozy snuggles.
At one moment I am being welcomed into a cold abandoned trailer by two kind gentlemen, and an hour later I am following the beam of my flashlight as we pick our way through the debris-laden corridors of a damp, decrepit, abandoned middle school and making our way to the third floor to meet with a woman and a man who call Room 305 their home.
During the course of the past twenty years I have participated in outreach in both California and New York City, and direct services of many kinds. However, for the past nine years I have been writing grants. While grant writing is a great profession, my heart has been yearning to get back to working directly with the poor and marginalized and I was tenacious in seeking this specific job. This abandoned building and night outreach challenges me and provides a steep learning curve. It is a unique form of outreach and there are several surprising and humbling lessons within this new position.
Among the humbling surprises is the warm welcome that our team receives – even between the hours of 10pm and 2 am – from the vast majority of the men and women who are sleeping in abandoned buildings or under bridges. This should be no surprise. Mike and Shamus have worked hard to build relationships of trust over the past several years of the night outreach project. Still, it is surprising to wake a man bundled in flimsy blankets curled around his shopping cart full of aluminum cans at 1:15 in the morning, and have him exclaim in a happy, if groggy, voice “Shamus! Mike! Howya doing brothers?”
There are forms to sign and information to impart, but first – in true New Orleans fashion – there are warm handshakes, catching up on recent events and inquiring about family and pets. As I am introduced as a new member of the team each client assures me that I am in capable hands, that Mike, Shamus, Clarence and the rest of the Welcome Home team are like their family, and that they would do anything for them.
Another astonishing lesson for me is the depth and breadth of medical issues people living in abandoned buildings are facing. In my first four weeks with the outreach team we have encountered a man with one arm living in a filthy squat, a pregnant woman living in a choir loft of an abandoned church, at least two men recovering from strokes, an epileptic without seizure–reducing medication living in a gutted house, a woman with active TB and a young daughter reported living in their car or various abandoned apartments, a man undergoing chemotherapy with his chemo medications littering the floor of his squat, people struggling with head traumas, or open, oozing wounds, a man sleeping in a law office doorway with an extremely serious case of intestinal diverticulitis, a man whose testes were so full of fluid they were the size of melons, and more. This list doesn’t even include the number of women and men who are in grave need of mental health care and struggling mightily without stabilizing medications.
An additional eye-opening lesson is how much more decayed the abandoned buildings in New Orleans are becoming in the four plus years post-Katrina. With unrepaired roofs, water remains a dangerous foe. One day we are talking with three women and two men who are sleeping in an abandoned church. A few days later we go back to the church to continue working with the people (now nowhere to be found) and find the brick walls have crumbled and brought down half of the church. Two nights later we return yet again and the entire structure lies in steep layers of bricks, plaster and rotten lumber.
While there are many more astonishing and humbling things to share about and with the men and women we meet, I would be remiss if I did not highlight the generosity of information and kind suggestions freely shared by the entire Welcome Home team – all who genuinely love their demanding jobs.
I am very thankful to my family team who has assisted in this transition to strange work hours and challenging duties. I am very thankful to my co-workers who have gently and with great care allowed me onto their most unique team. And I remain thankful to the women and men we meet, both day and night, who – with good grace and warm welcomes – allow me to team up with them to move to a safe and healthy home.