Monday, February 20, 2012

New Orleans Homeless Shelters During Mardi Gras

Did you know that during the long Mard Gras "weekend", that is, between the Saturday morning before Mardi Gras until Ash Wednesday morning-a 5 day period, morning to morning-all the homeless shelters stop serving food?

One such shelter, The Ozanam Inn on Camp Street, also stops offering beds for the homeless, shutting down completely. The New Orleans Mission, another homeless shelter on Oretha Castle Haley (old Dryades Street, near the bus station), closes it's day facilities, leaving many handicapped and ill people with no where to go but a park or a bench, wherever they can find a place to sit. And sit. The New Orleans Mission has also scaled back it's food service operation, serving coffee and pastries in the morning, no lunch whatsoever, and no dinner (unless an outside church has agreed to provide the food).  Come Wednesday, everything will be back to normal, but in the meantime, the New Orleans Mission is bursting at the seams with people-and it's all the small staff can do to maintain order there. "Chaos" is the best word for life at "The Mission", as the New Orleans Mission is unfondly called by those who use its services. To summarize: for five days in New Orleans, the homeless have little, if any, services. One mission simply closes down. The others scale back their operations drastically. I could find no food nor water for four of those five days.

I've been walking between Jackson Avenue and Canal Street, staying out of the Quarter for now. As usual, I love the lower Garden District-all of the pre-Katrina charm is still there. Coliseum Park is an old favorite of mine, on Camp Street, about 5 or 6 blocks upriver from the US 90 bridge across the Mississippi river.

The World War II Museum, the Contemporary Arts center, St. Charles Avenue, Prytania Street, Margaret Park, the Muses area (where most of the streets are named after figures from Greek mythology), Jackson Avenue between St. Charles and Tchoupitoulas, Magazine Street (with it's eclectic stores), and Lee Circle...I'd love to live in this charming neighborhood, since I am now a confirmed bachelor. An upper apartment right on Coliseum Square would be nice, or perhaps a nice bungalow on Felicity... and the Mardi Gras people are everywhere right now, even wandering around Central City (the area on the lake side of St. Charles Avenue). Maybe tomorrow I'll walk out to Esplanade, and see what the Quarter's looking like in 2012.

But back to the homeless situation. I once witnessed a truly pathetic sight one afternoon as I was walking around, thinking, taking photographs, smoking cigarettes. It was pouring down rain that day. I was high and dry under the US 90 bridge, right there by Oretha Haley and the New Orleans Mission. I looked down the sidewalk, and saw a group of about thirty homeless people standing out in the rain. Only two or three had umbrellas. What were they doing? Waiting for a "bed ticket", so they'd have a warm, dry place to sleep that night. They stood like that in the pouring rain for about two and a half hours. No one from the Mission Staff would let them in, even though there is a large chapel in the buulding that can hold at least two hundred people. Did you get that? While the Mission staff stayed dry and warm waiting for the "official" time to let people in, thirty or so people outside got drenched to the skin and chilled to the bone. These unfortunates probably were confused, or frightened, or just plain anxious to find a safe place to sleep for the night. Most were definatelty afraid that if they lost their place in line, they'd be sleeping outside that night. And so it rained on them steadily for all that time. Again, the Mission staff were inside, dry and comfortable. Most, if not all the staff at the New Orleans Mission are ex-homeless themselves. Apparently, the place is poorly run. There's a clean, nice complex in the back that looks like regular apartments. The signs say it's for families-meaning women and children. But there are at least ten or so women waiting in line for a shelter bed (in the bunkhouse, aka "general population") every night.  Security is lax, the bunkhouse is crowded, and smelly. Sanitary facilities are crude, Port-A-Potties that always seems to foul up after midnight.

And they say New Orleans has the second largest homeless population in the country.

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