He’s traumatized, after being shot at for being Black and homeless

Early one morning this year,
a stranger dressed in body armor shot at Michael Woolens,
in what the New Orleans Police Department described as a racial hate crime. Using the N word, the man said he did not like seeing Woolens and he did not like homeless people.

Dear Friend,

This is a tragic story about someone who desperately needs housing.

Michael Woolens’ small tent is tucked away, propped up next to an industrial fence, on a side street without much light. If you drove past, you might not even see it.

But early one morning this year, a stranger dressed in body armor shot at Michael, in what the New Orleans Police Department described as a racial hate crime. Using the N word, the man said he did not like seeing Woolens and he did not like homeless people.

Though hobbled by sciatica, Michael ran down the street, bullets flying around him, and hailed down an NOPD squad car. Officers quickly arrested the man.

The experience traumatized Michael. On a recent day, he talked about it with Clarence White III, a longtime Street Outreach worker for UNITY of Greater New Orleans. “I haven’t really been able to sleep,” Michael said. “If someone walks up from behind me, I jump.”

Our team is working hard to house Michael as fast as we can.

Your support for UNITY, on or before GiveNOLA Day on May 2, will support our Outreach Team, so that we can implement an ambitious initiative.

UNITY outreach teams and caseworkers will work with 420 people now suffering on the streets, helping them move into apartments, and connecting them with vital medical and mental health care and supportive services.

We are laying groundwork now, with hopes of getting everyone housed within the next year. 

Longtime UNITY outreach worker Clarence White III has been working closely with Michael Woolens, to get him off the streets and to connect him with needed medical care.

Michael never felt that sort of hatred before, he said. “To me, New Orleans has always been a kind place.”

Clarence has found a shelter bed to move Michael into, to help him deal with some urgent medical issues and his psychological trauma. From there, we’ll end his homelessness altogether, by moving him into an apartment with case-management services.

Right now, Michael needs a roof over his head and walls to protect him from the elements – and from intruders. He needs to feel safe again.

As you know, that is what UNITY does.

Each year, with your help, UNITY’s Outreach Team and our coalition of nonprofits help thousands of people in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.  Using our budget as carefully as possible, we place as many unhoused people as we can into new housing.

UNITY-coalition caseworkers also visit and check on thousands of formerly homeless people we’ve already housed, to ensure that they remain stably housed.  If people are able to work, we help them find jobs and become self-sufficient. For those with mental or physical disabilities, we help stabilize their health by connecting them with regular medical care  — sometimes for the first time in their lives — and by providing rental assistance and services to keep them housed for the long-term.

This is a humanitarian approach and also one that saves public dollars, by avoiding ambulance trips, emergency-room stays and other high-ticket services that can add up quickly when people in poor health live on the streets. Even after doing this work for decades, I am still shocked by the level of illness that people endure while living on the street: our Outreach Team meets people living with cancer, heart and lung conditions, and bone disorders so severe that every step causes severe pain.

Michael’s case feels especially urgent to us, because of what he’s been through.

He spent almost his entire childhood in the St. Thomas housing development about a mile away, attended Walter L. Cohen Senior High School, where he was a talented middle linebacker on the football team.

After he lost a job and became homelessness about a year ago, he returned to the area he knew from childhood. He found two couch cushions on a curb nearby. He hung a tarp from an industrial fence, pulled the cushions into place and created a little place for himself to sleep.

That’s where he was lying when his tent began to fill with smoke earlier this year. He fumbled for the source of the smoke and threw it out of the tent. But soon, another smoking orb landed next to him. A homemade smoke bomb, he said. He peeked outside and saw an armed man in body armor standing a few feet away. Using racial epithets, the man told Michael that he didn’t like him and he didn’t like homeless people.

Michael saw the man lower the gun and ducked, terrified. Two bullets flew into the little tent. He felt death was certain.

So he bent over, gathered his football training from 50 years ago and pushed into the man, knocking him over. Then he ran, bullets flying around him, toward a busier nearby street.

There, he hailed down a passing NOPD squad car. Officers jumped out and swiftly arrested the man.

Recently we announced a new initiative to help 420 people off the street into housing. Our award-winning outreach team will be more important than ever in accomplishing this feat. 

Connecting with Clarence from UNITY, Michael feels hopeful, he said. “Whenever he stops by to check on me, just his presence makes me feel better.”

The work with Michael is well underway. So many others urgently need that attention, and hope. Your contribution can help UNITY’s Outreach workers rescue more people from tents, abandoned buildings and the streets of the city.

Over the next year, we hope to be able to substantially reduce homelessness in our community — thanks to a new federal grant that UNITY was just awarded in a national competition. We have set up a locally supported Housing Fund to supplement that grant, allowing us to house even more people and paying for beds and move-in kits to get them settled in their new apartments.  

We worked very hard to get this grant and we know it will be life-changing for the people who are now suffering on the streets of our city.

The grant will help us do so much, by paying for rental assistance and case-management services. But it does not include funds for UNITY’s Outreach Team — a vital component of our success in housing people who are suffering on the street. 

To make this project a success, I am asking for your help to expand the Outreach Team, to provide more individual attention, essential services, and clinical mental health services to the most vulnerable people in the New Orleans area. 

GiveNOLA Day is Tuesday, May 2, but you can give early TODAY, by clicking on the green box below. If you’re able, please consider a gift to UNITY — of whatever amount you can afford. Thank you very much for your care and generosity.

Martha J. Kegel
Executive Director

P.S. I am so grateful for your compassion for vulnerable people. Thank you for supporting this work, to ensure that every New Orleanian has a home.

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