by Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
Posted on January 12, 2011 at 10:29 PM
NEW ORLEANS- On a night when temperatures are expected to dip below freezing, Clarence White is on a mission.
The UNITY outreach worker canvassed the entire New Orleans area Wednesday, working to get people off the streets, and out of the cold.
“Try to get them into the shelters tonight, that’s our main focus,” said White.
Among White’s concerns are those staying in abandoned buildings. Just a few weeks ago, a tragic fire in an abandoned warehouse claimed the lives of eight people. Investigators believe young squatters lit the fire to keep warm.
“Like tonight, it’ll probably be in the low 20s, so that’s the hotspots that we try and attack, where people refuse to go into shelters,” said White.
White said transient youth are often reluctant to go to shelters. He showed Eyewitness News an abandoned home where he believes young people are squatting in Central City. It had no door, but had a mattress and blankets in the living room, and a book on the window sill.
White said many transient youth will plan to stay in abandoned buildings, even on a freeze night.
“We’re still not going to give up on them,” said White. “We try to form relationships with them, and get their trust from us that they can take advantage of our services.”
Isabella Christodoulou works with transient youth on a daily basis at Tulane University’s Drop-In Center, a day shelter for youth ages 13-24. She said even after December’s tragic fire, she hasn’t seen an increase in transient youth going shelters, for a variety of reasons.
“There is a misunderstanding about their culture and the way they dress, and they’re not always comfortable in places like that,” said Christodoulou.
White was able to convince some who are homeless to spend the night in a shelter Wednesday. Ernest Davis said he would otherwise be in a dangerous situation.
“I be sleeping in a building, somewhere, a homeless building, try and get out of the cold. It’s a risk, because anything could happen, like I could burn up or something, anything could happen,” said Davis.
Some, like Sandra Heitzman, still planned to sleep outside.
“I have lots of blankets, I have a sleeping bag, I actually sweat sometimes, I stay really extremely warm,” said Heitzman, who planned to sleep outside the New Orleans Mission Wednesday.
Meanwhile, White said he’ll work through the night to get people out of the cold and potentially save lives.
UNITY officials estimate there are as many as 3,000 people living in abandoned buildings in Jefferson and Orleans parishes. While some are transient youth, they say many are Katrina survivors. According to UNITY officials, the number of emergency beds in those parishes has dropped nearly 40 percent since Katrina even though the homeless population has nearly doubled.