Today’s post is by Clarence White, a Unity outreach case worker who is no stranger to homelessness. Four years after the levee failures, he lives in his flooded-out house in Gentilly, a house that was inundated in water for three weeks, leaving it uninhabitable. Four years later, he is living with no electricity and no hot water since he started rebuilding nearly two years ago, but he’s not complaining.
Yes, I am experiencing things like a homeless person. I’ve been there. I’ve been homeless. I can understand their miseries. I’m going through my own miseries, so I am in a homeless mindset. I’m living in darkness, using a flashlight to get around. I came back to the city in 2006 and didn’t start rebuilding my flooded house until two years ago. I know what people are going through trying to live on the street.
With Charity Hospital not open, my clients have nowhere to go. They walk up and down the streets, many of them suffering with mental or physical illnesses. I try to get as many as I can to go to Health Care for the Homeless so they can get needed medication so they won’t stroke out on the street or have a heart attack. This service can prevent life-threatening heart attacks or strokes, but many of them don’t know it’s there.
Outreach workers can gain the trust of homeless individuals by being visible. That’s because they see us out there all the time, daytime or nighttime. As caseworkers, we can form that trusting relationship until we can get our clients into housing. A program called Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) will be placing three of my clients who definitely needed housing and health care as well as remediation of mental health issues. It’s typical to lose track of homeless clients because they hide to avoid arrest and can’t trust just anyone to help them. I searched for these three clients for four months. Today I can say those clients will be housed by next week. To see their smiles, oh, that just makes my day. When they saw me, they said, “Mr. White, we’re here. We’re here.”
I always give out my card because even if they don’t have cell phones, they will find someone who does or call me from another agency, at which point I can assist them. Housing first works because if you get them in a house, you can treat all the other things they are suffering from. One of my clients I visited today in the hospital will be eligible for housing once she is released. Making an impact in their lives keeps me going, looking in all the hiding places they find.
My biggest frustration now is seeing all the land available in New Orleans where they could build supportive housing. And Unity is their only hope. One client on a bicycle told me, “Thank you for Unity. Thank you for Unity. Y’all doin’ a real great job.” Seeing my clients getting misdemeanor tickets for loitering just frustrates me, too. What do we expect? If it’s raining, if its’ me, I’m going to sleep under the bridge. If you run me, I’ll go back. I understand that clearly. That’s survival tactics.
I’ll be glad when we can start a respite care for homeless individuals coming into New Orleans as well as for the ones already here. We see it daily. Shamus Rohn, Mike Miller, and all my other colleagues, we do a good job. We go into so many abandoned schools, hospitals, abandoned buildings, and we find people. They are suffering out there on the streets. Once we can bring them to a shelter, we’ve done our job.
Going out there meeting with them again and again without having enough places to bring them makes us all feel so frustrated. I wish we had more jobs we could offer, too, because most of the people I see want to work, but there are no jobs. If they could work, they could get rental assistance until they’re on their feet. I am still optimistic that in 2010, somehow the city will have jobs to offer them.
When I look back, I see I’ve been doing this all my life. I think finding housing for people was my job when I first started social work. I can’t say enough about Unity, all my coworkers, my directors, and the staff. They are my family. My favorite occupation is working with people who are having difficult times. I like working with the homeless. Charity Hospital, Healthcare for the Homeless, and now Unity are the places I’ve worked. Doing this work makes my own troubles seem like nothing. I can wash in cold water, no problem. To be successful in this work, you got to think with your heart.