Rolling with the Welcome Home Outreach team this past week and once during the midnight shift, I realized that my decision to quit my job and sell my home across the continent to come back to help rebuild the city was absolutely the best decision I could have made. The odds are against us, especially against the unhoused; the economy is against us; often people’s ignorance of the magnitude and immediacy of the problem is against us. How human beings treat each other is what will form the future of any country. What do we want to be known for? What this team has been doing, what all of UNITY’s member organizations have been doing, strikes me as an impossible task that is also a necessary task. Sitting in broken glass on the parking lot of an emergency shelter in town in the middle of the night doing intake, seeing those who wished to receive services brought it home to me. All who want to know about the needs here should do one of these midnight shifts just once. If they want to help the homeless, help Katrina victims, or help New Orleans, they should do this once. If they’re not sure whether to vote for initiatives that assist those without basic human rights, they should do this, just once. Before shopping retail for the holidays, they should come out here once, see the individuals still affected by disaster, and understand that this is not a theoretical argument. It is a human tragedy. It has to have a human solution.
The irony is this: homeless people (i.e. people who do not have homes) are sleeping on cardboard (if they can get it—and sometimes fighting over it, a piece of cardboard) on the cement outside an emergency shelter because the shelters are full. Or they are living without electricity in abandoned buildings all over the greater New Orleans area without the security of a locking door, without running water, with no place to refrigerate their meds (if they have them, if they are not stolen in the night, cut out of someone’s duffle bag as one man told us). Women seek out horrible rat-infested hiding places at night because that beats being raped on the street. Men and women sleep in abandoned homes, sometimes claiming they are not homeless to save face, live without medical care, suffer without proper nutrition, without basic necessities. They sleep amidst rats, roaches, mosquitoes (still active here in November), often with torn roofs and insulation showering them with debris, with floors caving in around them. They don’t, I’m told, actually sleep at all for fear of arrest for trespass, fear of having their essential items like prescription meds stolen, fear of unsafe, uncomfortable, untenable situations that many of us could not or would not long endure. They, too, have often become victims of drug dealers and the violence that comes along with the drug trade. Without enough protection, they become vulnerable to the selfish whims of those less ethical who prey upon them in their moments of weakness. This is not a life that many aspire to, as is evident on the faces of the three women who walked up to me, at first tentatively as if hiding from others who would see them talking to us, during an outreach in Algiers to tell me about all the abandoned homes within the neighborhood in which they’d slept. They were relieved to see us out there, understandably, and weary of their hard existence. But they were also obviously afraid of being seen, as I could tell by the way they constantly looked around or behind them as we spoke. By whom? Drug dealers? Homeowners? Others who may attack them for talking to “officials”? I hope they make it in to our Baronne office.
The homeless are often feared but not often treated with compassion. So it didn’t surprise me the night of our midnight outreach to the parking lot of an emergency shelter to be called over to the side of a man moaning in extreme pain while trying to show me an injury he had recently sustained. It took all his effort to just lift his t-shirt. He was lying on cardboard, no blanket, in agonizing pain with a blunt trauma injury to his entire left torso. I am not a doctor, but I could see that this was a serious injury with underlying complications, possibly internal bleeding or broken bones along with the broken and badly bruised skin. We called 911. No matter what people think about homeless individuals in this country, and I’ve heard some mean-hearted sentiments, not one of them deserves to die unattended in a parking lot merely for not being able to navigate the systems in a busted economy.
Working at Unity has brought me to my humanity. I feel I’ve trained my whole life for this. Working for the last couple of decades in nonprofit grant agencies that serve the underrepresented or in universities with programs serving the poor from diverse backgrounds has trained me to care about people’s futures and well-being in a tough economy that tends to make those with little means suffer more than those with the most means, unfairly. It has made me realize that in America, the trickle down theory is a lie. That health care and shelter are basic human rights, not luxuries nor rewards for “right living.” Anyone working for the poor in this time period realizes our society’s overall tendency to ignore or deny that poverty or suffering exists. We don’t want to see it. We don’t want to own it. It makes us uncomfortable. We get to feel self-righteous if we’ve been fortunate or privileged enough to still have a working wage, to have health care. We don’t like to see the faces of poverty or homelessness in the media. We want to make it their problem, their flaw. But it is ours. It has come home. People, human beings, are affected by poverty and disaster in very direct and adverse ways. They die on the streets every day from lack of basic medical care, lack of proper shelter and care. And the way the economy is going, they could be you. They could be me. What don’t we get about this? No happiness is complete while others are suffering. We’re not dealing with theoretical models.
That’s why I think New Orleans is the most important place for me to be right now in this point in history to work among those who demonstrate every day that we can be a nation worthy of its ideals. Many occupations could make one some money, although most do not anymore. Helping the homeless, though? Priceless.
– Cynthia Mitchell
Director of Intake