How Can a Frail Elder Stay Safe, Without a Home?

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For the past month, he’s slept outside on a few layers of cardboard, praying that he wouldn’t contract the coronavirus

Dear Friend,

James Anderson, 68, ran heavy machinery when he was a younger man, helping to build levees across Louisiana and in neighboring states.

He is a slight man, standing about 5-foot, 6-inches tall and weighing a little over 100 pounds.So he’d strap into two seatbelts as he drove the backhoes and the diggers across bumpy terrain. But still, he bounced pretty high in the air, he said.

Then, after a few decades, his body could no longer handle the constant bumps and vibrations.

He had always come home to New Orleans between jobs. But about 20 years ago, he returned to his hometown for good. He did odd jobs here in the city and paid his rent on a number of apartments in the Central City area.

Clarence White III, an outreach worker for UNITY of Greater New Orleans, remembers seeing him in the neighborhood around that time: the slight man with striking blue eyes. His neighbors knew him as a gifted cook who often had pots of beans or backbone stew bubbling on his stove.

UNITY outreach worker Clarence White III and Mr. Anderson

Then, without warning, Mr. Anderson’s health declined. He didn’t know exactly why. He’d always been athletic, with quickness that had made him a standout on the city’s basketball court, despite his height. “In my mind, I still can play,” he said with a grin. But in real life, he found that his breath got short very quickly. He became thin and frail. He could no longer work. He lost his apartment.

For the past year or two, he’s been sleeping steadily outside, often near a downtown church or near the public library, places where he felt safe, he said.

Three days before Christmas in 2018, when he was hospitalized with pneumonia, doctors discovered that his blood-sugar levels had spiked, to the point where pneumonia can become deadly. He ended up on dialysis. Though he now takes medication that helps to stabilize his diabetes, he had been told that he has a tough case of diabetes. And because homelessness makes his meals and schedule inconsistent, his condition has been almost impossible to control. He also struggles with depression.

UNITY outreach workers helping the homeless at the Main Library

Then the coronavirus hit New Orleans. Mr. Anderson started to hear that diabetics like him often have trouble recovering from the virus. As he slept on his pile of cardboard outside the main library, he tried to take his mind off of that frightening possibility. “I’d lie there and I’d look up at the stars and I’d talk to God,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Please don’t let this virus get me.’”

Since the pandemic began, UNITY has raised concerns that the virus could spread quickly in the city’s homeless camps and that it could take a toll on those whose immune systems had been weakened by life on the streets. A national study found that, because of poor health and chronic medical conditions, homeless people are nearly three times as likely to die from the coronavirus as the general population. On the street, homeless people have scarce access to sanitation, and soap and water, leaving them unable to check the spread of the virus.

UNITY Outreach Worker Clarence White was very concerned about Mr. Anderson, so last week our Outreach Team found him and took him to a low-cost motel, where we bring him three meals a day, make sure he is taking his medicine, and that he is protected from coronavirus.  

The next step for Mr. Anderson is Permanent Supportive Housing. Because he is unable to adequately take care of himself, we aim to provide him with an affordable apartment with a case manager who comes frequently to check on him, taking him to doctor’s appointments and making sure he has everything he needs.

He is one of hundreds of people whom UNITY and our partners at the city and state have moved off the street into hotels and apartments since the pandemic began. Our goal — one that we have been working on relentlessly since the Mayor’s stay-at-home order began — is to get every homeless person off the street.

From the low-cost motels, we are working to move every homeless person into apartments.  We want to end their homelessness altogether.

Sometimes, as he laid on his cardboard bed outside the library, Mr. Anderson would dream about the food he was going to cook, once he got his own kitchen again. But he wasn’t sure when that day would come.

Since UNITY gave him a motel room, Mr. Anderson said he has felt happier than he has in a long time.  He has spent the past few nights sleeping peacefully in his own room, safe from the virus. By the end of the month, we hope to give him a key to an apartment that will be linked to supportive services. His mind is already ready, he said:  For the past two days, his dreams have been filled with visions of pots, bubbling on his own stove.

I am asking for your support today for UNITY’s vital work of housing the most vulnerable people in the New Orleans area.  Our vision is that — with your help — our community can emerge from this crisis with fewer people struggling in homelessness, not more.  Our prayer is that everyone can be given the safety of home. 

Will you help make Mr. Anderson’s dreams of cooking again a reality – that he gets an apartment and the supportive services he needs?  Will you help make sure that we can get all the rest of the homeless people safely off the street?  

Today, on Giving Tuesday, please consider a gift to UNITY of whatever amount you can afford. You can give securely here.

Thank you so very much for your compassion and kindness.


Martha J. Kegel

Executive Director

How Will Your Gift Help?

How can people stay safely at home when they do not even have a home? UNITY is advocating for the most vulnerable people to get the resources they need, but we need your help. Your gift today will assist homeless children and adults to have the safety of their own homes.

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