To be Clarence's Office Mate

Clarence in his flooded home

UNITY outreach worker Clarence White searches abandoned buildings to rescue the homeless

God bless Clarence White.   Seriously, may God bless Clarence White and I’m not even religious    If you had a chance to read his post you got about half the man’s struggle.  His modesty, pride and focus got in the way of communicating his struggle and in turn, our struggle.  For the last two years I have had the pleasure of sharing an office with him.  Overlooking his overflowing desk and his tendency to leave food in the office, I have witnessed his heroic battle to rebuild his house, community and life.  10 feet of floodwaters, 4 years of headaches, 1 FEMA trailer, dozens of contractors and a house that is almost a home.

There is not one day that has passed that my good friend has not had to deal with some crisis related to his housing.  When I first started at UNITY, Clarence was spending his days marred in the hopelessness of homelessness working in the encampments of Duncan Plaza and Canal/Claiborne.  Everyday Clarence would work harder and with more enthusiasm that any social worker I have ever met. Every day, after sitting in tents, completing paperwork until calluses developed on his fingers,  watching his fellow New Orleanians withering in the pain of homelessness,  he’d go home………to a 18 foot FEMA trailer.  The irony is not lost on me.  Unfortunately Clarence is way too altruistic to even think about how much his situation sucked.  It only got worse.

In late 2007, FEMA realized that their little trailers had been slapped together with chemicals more appropriate to embalming dead people than housing live ones.  Clarence had to go and he had to go fast.  He was able to secure a beautiful unit in a “transition” neighborhood.  “Transition” is code for don’t walk out you door at night,  duck when you hear shots and try not to look like your scared of your neighbors.  I know that man wished he could just be in his home. 

After daily battles with contractors, extreme financial hardship, blood, sweat, tears, hope and dreams, Clarence decided something that truly boggles my mind; He decided to go back to school.   If the man didn’t have enough on his plate, he decided he needed to start working on his masters in social work.  To me, it’s kind of like being in a foxhole with bullets flying over your head, knee deep in cold mud, fighting for your life and deciding that you should bake a batch of cupcakes!   Cupcakes are kind of like social work.  Sure you get to enjoy some of them, but the real joy comes from sharing your skills with others.  I don’t admire him.  Admiration isn’t strong enough.  I’m not sure there’s a word for it.  It’s incredible.

So where is my partner now?  He just got his electrical work finished and is waiting on an inspection from the city so he can get his electricity turned on.  After one particularly heated discussion with his contractor I overheard, and I’ve overheard hundreds now, I told Clarence he’s got some big shoulders.  He just smiled and laughed and went right back to work.  Typical Clarence White and I’m blessed to call him a friend. 

-Mike

3 Comments

  • Erin Jackson

    November 9, 2009 6:20 am

    You guys are heroes! To think that someone doing such difficult work could himself be living under these conditions. Clarence White embodies the best of New Orleans.

  • Kathleen Nealon

    November 20, 2009 6:09 pm

    Mike,
    I agree, Clarence is a great office office mate. I know because he was my office mate before he was yours. Greetings to everyone at UNITY. I hope you are all well. You are all frequently in my thoughts and prayers. I appreciate reading the blog. Take care.
    -Kathleen

  • Susan Edgerson

    December 28, 2009 6:47 pm

    I know Clarence from my teenage years and ran across him several times during the course of my son playing AAU basketball, being a star player at St. Aug, and when he went off to The University of Arizona and won an NCAA Championship as a freshman in 1997. I have been home since June 08 after spending 3 years in Tucson, AZ. I enrolled in the Social Work Masters program this fall and who I have as a classmate but Clarence. He has always had a big heart and has always been a strong man. I am proud to know him.

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