I never sleep well on these nights. After 13 hours working the streets, an inordinate amount of stale coffee and a lingering sense of doubt, it’s kind of hard to sleep. At three in the morning I start thinking about the list. Every city has one and somebody has to track it. In New Orleans, I’m that guy. It’s the homeless death list. The list closed 2010 with the addition of 8 homeless young people who perished in a fire in the Upper 9th ward trying to keep warm on a freeze night. The youngest was 17. The oldest so far is 30; three weeks later the officials have still not determined the identities of two of the bodies.
My first addition to the list was eleven hours into the New Years when a client of mine was hit by a cab going to work cleaning up after a Hornets game. The minimum wage kept his abandoned house stocked with canned goods.
So the night sky is cloudless and the thermometer is dropping. In less than three hours it will bottom out at 28 degrees, threatening a record low. I know this is the kind of cold that kills. I know that a couple of years ago 28 degrees produced two hypothermic deaths. I know because I put them on the list and wondered what we could have done different. How come we didn’t look inside the dumpster behind the abandoned mall in New Orleans East? How did we miss the lady sleeping on a cold bench on a deserted strip of park two blocks from the river? How many dumpsters in the city can we check? How many benches? I don’t even want to think about the 55,000 abandoned buildings. Four outreach workers have been out all night pulling people out of doorways, climbing through weed choked lots, scampering under wharfs and haunting back alleys. I know we didn’t get everyone. I know we can’t.
I never sleep well on nights like this. I’m pretty sure it’s because of the list.