Vigil focuses attention on deaths of 14 homeless people in the past year

Weathered hands, rough from icy temperatures and years of strife, gripped small candles Friday night in memory of 14 homeless people who died while living on the streets of New Orleans.

The event, attended by dozens of homeless people, was planned by Healthcare for the Homeless, whose doctors have long documented how homeless people, many of whom ended up on the streets because of untreated mental illness, often suffer from a host of other medical conditions.

Over time, “homelessness kills people,” said UNITY of Greater New Orleans director Martha Kegel, as she and a group of social workers and homeless people formed a circle of candles outside the New Orleans Mission.

The list of this year’s dead, as recorded by UNITY caseworkers, included Ralph McGee and Terry Lawhorn, who suffered fatal strokes; Gary Sing and Timothy Larson, who were stabbed; Herbert Clark, who had a heart attack; Richard Peck, who was shot; Debra Reed, found unresponsive in May and soon died; Trina Bryant, who in October died of cancer; and Larry Bumtas, whose body was found on the Algiers Point batture. The names for a few others were unknown and two were known only by their nicknames, such as “Drunk Dave,” who overdosed in an abandoned building in July, and “Cherokee,” who died of alcohol poisoning at a local hospital.

The vigil was especially poignant for Kegel, whose caseworkers spent the better part of Thursday evening determining which of the homeless people who sleep in front of the New Orleans Mission were most likely to die soon without housing.

From the crowd of a few dozen people sleeping on cold concrete and makeshift cardboard beds, they transported 12 to a low-cost hotel near downtown. Among the 12 was a woman with end-stage cancer, two partially paralyzed men and several people suffering with paranoid schizophrenia or other serious mental illness — “the sickest of the sick,” said Kegel.

UNITY will house them with short-term rental subsidies provided by a new partnership with the city of New Orleans that uses federal stimulus money. But the organization still needs to find additional money to feed their new clients and to pay for the motel rooms while UNITY caseworkers get them stabilized with medical and mental health care, Kegel said.

George Lee, 45, had just checked into a Mid-City motel as one of UNITY’s new clients. He grew up in Hollygrove and because he had always lived with family had never before been homeless, a common situation for many in the city’s post-Katrina surge of homelessness.

Lee has trouble standing for more than hour at a time because of two steel rods implanted in place of his legs’ tibia bones after an accident years ago, but he had a problem with his disability checks that he’s been unable to resolve.

So he learned to cover himself completely at night to keep out the rats that he feels run across his blankets. He keeps his shoes close so they don’t get stolen. And he’s learned that, if they hope to survive homelessness, he and other homeless people need to be each other’s keeper. “That’s all we got out there is each other,” said Lee.

Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune

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