I just read this article in the Times-Pic about the homeless colony underneath the highway.  This colony of 30-some people is right across the street from one of the more well-known shelters in the city, the New Orleans Mission, an outdated, fire hazard-ridden building unsuitable for anything but using the washroom at night.  The colony is a popular spot because it’s shady, it’s close to the mission where the homeless can get three meals a day and a place to shower (so long as they haven’t been banned), and there’s ample room to sit and camp out without getting arrested for “obstruction of a public walkway” (one of the reasons the homeless become criminals for being homeless).  Two nights ago, the NOPD and Homeless Outreach Team of Unity of Greater New Orleans attempted to clear it out by helping people fill out applications for permanent supporting housing and job applications.  We’ll see how long it lasts. 

Here’s the article: http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/09/homeless_colony_cleared_out_ne.html

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This post is clearly overdue, but I nevertheless want to bring it to your attention.  A couple of months ago, a bill went through the Louisiana legislature (and passed unanimously in both houses, I might add) which was supposed to create a homeless “czar” (similar to Obama’s education czar, Chicago’s own Arne Duncan), who would have been responsible in overseeing all of the homeless issues in Louisiana.  The homeless czar’s office would have been a hub, where agencies and individuals would have found a one-stop shop for helping and healing the homeless population.  The homeless czar was supposed to keep track of openings in shelters and programs for addiction and mental health problems.  The homeless czar was supposed to oversee all of the policy work aimed at treating the homeless issue, such as discharge planning and homeless courts.  In a nutshell, the homeless czar would have been the person (or office) anyone could turn to if they had any homeless issue and needed assistance.  Too bad Bobby Jindal vetoed the bill.

I can’t say why he vetoed the bill.  All of the people over at Unity of Greater New Orleans were similarly stumped.  Okay stumped is too nice a word.  PISSED is more like it.  The people over at Unity, which is New Orleans’ Continuum of Care aimed at eradicating homelessness, worked for months to get the bill passed by both the House and the Senate.  No easy task, when Louisiana politics (and politicos) are as corrupt as another little state I know of… cough Illinois cough.  So you can imagine the amount of time and resources that were spent trying to get this homeless czar to even blip-on-the-radar status, let alone getting it passed unanimously.  Phone calls, individual meetings with legislators, trips to Baton Rouge, and testimony in front of the Senate by one of the members of Unity’s Homeless Outreach Unit (a group of big, burly and brave men who visit the lesser-known homeless shelters of New Orleans, also known as decrepit and/or condemned abandoned buildings, sewers and long-overdue-for-destruction FEMA trailers) were some of the efforts made by Unity to create a homeless czar position.

Jindal blamed it on the money.  Of course.  Even though the state cannot STOP bragging on the local interstates how many millions are being spent fixing highways that don’t need fixing, while the people still living beneath them on Claiborne continue to be ignored.  The entire project would have cost $600,000, $300,000 of which would have come directly out of Louisiana’s stimulus package (well, what’s left of it, that is), and the rest would have been covered by federal grants.  Louisiana taxpayers would have never noticed it.  They only would have noticed the benefits of not having a fractured system aimed at eradicating and preventing homelessness, one that, despite everyone’s valiant efforts, continues to be mediocre at best. But Jindal somehow misread the bill and said in his statement that it would have been accomplished at a $500,000 cost to Louisiana’s taxpayers – way to garner support for your abuse of power, Bobby.

So, here we are.  Someone gave Bobby Jindal a pen to line-item veto a bill that would have revolutionized the approach to the homeless issue in Louisiana.  An override is not a possibility.  Suddenly all of the legislators who voted for the bill are backpeddling – “I never really understood it,” or, “I didn’t think it would cost this much” (NOT), or, “I just voted on it because everyone else was.”  Well, so be it.  I guess we can save innovative approaches toward the homeless issue for another day.

Hello all – I have to apologize for the serious lack in updates over the last few weeks.  Following the Fourth of July, SLLS became so busy that we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  As a matter of fact, now that the other clerk and I are gone, the Homelessness Advocacy Project has had to suspend all community outreaches, just to catch up with all the cases.  As I mentioned before, the attorneys in the Homeless Unit at SLLS do weekly outreaches in order to engage the homeless community and make sure that they have representation.  However, because the Homeless Unit is currently servicing approximately 150 clients, and consists of only two attorneys and has no social worker to speak of, community outreach is a luxury the Homeless Unit cannot afford, timewise.

Part of the problem is the lack of a social worker on the payroll.  I have to say that a great portion of my time at SLLS was spent doing just that – social work.  My first observation when I started at SLLS was that homeless people are incredibly difficult to get a hold of, go figure.  As a result, they very rarely are able to keep in touch with a social worker who’s been assigned to them by a hospital, shelter or other organization; assuming, of course, that they’ve ever been given one.  If they haven’t, they turn to SLLS’s Homeless Unit with their problems, even though very few of them turn into actual legal issues.  Many of the clients’ problems I ended up addressing were minor,  easily dealt with because I had access to a phone, the internet, and patience.  Example: a client came in because he’d been threatened with arrest at the food stamps office, because he already had an account open in San Diego and had tried to open one in New Orleans.  “All” it took was two weeks’ worth of conversations and phone tag, and I was able to get his account closed in San Diego, got him a replacement card to use in New Orleans for the rest of the month, and got him an appointment at the local office to get food stamps in place for the next month.  Sounds easy enough, but I’m not a social worker.  That was time I could have spent preparing the documents the same client needed for his divorce, or working on his appeal with the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, since he was denied SSI even though he was hydrocephalic and blind in one eye.

But I digress.  This is my long-winded excuse for having not updated the site in way too long.  I’m gone now, but I’m still planning on blogging.  The homeless problem in New Orleans certainly isn’t going away anytime soon, and I intend on being invovled in the fight against it, even though I’m back in Chicago.  Please continue checking in – I’ll still be sharing stories from the summer, and keeping you in the loop about what’s still going on in the Big Easy.

Happy Fourth of July to all!  Let us celebrate our independence today, and hope that someday, all Americans will be treated equally, especially those for whom this is just another day to struggle on the streets.

Two days ago, before the holiday weekend, a judge ordered the Canal Street Hotel closed.  The ruling came down at around 1 p.m.; the hotel was to be vacant by 5 p.m.  Let me give you a little background on the hotel: over the past few years, it had become something of a long-term hotel for people whose homes were destroyed in the storms, and who were still waiting for Road Home money.  Some were on the verge of moving into their (finally) newly-renovated homes.  Not surprisingly, the hotel had taken on some of the less-desirable qualities of project housing: crime, drug deals, and a murder on June 30.  Moreover, the hotel had various structural issues as well, and violated mechanical and electrical codes.  It was considered a “public nuisance.”

Clearly, this place was a cesspool.  It is no great tragedy that it was closed.  To the people living there, however, this closure presents yet another problem in their long road of trouble following the hurricane.  My co-worker at SLLS went over to the hotel around 5 p.m. to see what was going on.  He encountered turmoil; long lines at the front desk for refunds if people had paid for the week, and everyone basically scrambling to gather their possessions before the hotel was closed by police.  My co-worker ended up helping an elderly woman who had been living in the hotel for a year; her home is two weeks away from completion, after having been destroyed in Katrina four years ago.  Her son had pulled up to the hotel with a horse trailer, and he was helping his 84-year-old mother pack all of her worldly possessions into the trailer in the span of an hour and a half.

Luckily, this particular elderly woman had somewhere to go, and in two weeks, will finally have a home to call her own.  But her case is rare; chances are that most of the people living in the hotel had either not gotten their Road Home money yet, or would never get it because they didn’t qualify.  For some, this was home; some people considered the Canal Street Hotel as an extension of the Iberville Housing Projects across the street.    So the question is: wasn’t there a better way to accomplish the goal of closing the “public nuisance?”  It seems to me that this was an example of one of the problems that plagues homeless policy and homelessness law: and complete lack of empathy for the homeless.  The closure cannot be considered to be a “kick in the butt” for the hotel’s occupants to get appropriate housing.  A kick in the butt is when a teenager’s parents take away his Wii and tell him to do his homework.  Not quite the same thing.

What do people think?  Was this an appropriate use of judicial power to clean up the city and rid it of a criminal cesspool?  Or was this a premature “fix” to a larger problem, that will only become worse by the approximately 250 people who have now found themselves on the street?

I had a client come in the other day, recently homeless as a result of FEMA’s awesome policies.  Following Katrina, and after she returned from the evacuation, she was provided a beautiful, brand-spankin’ new trailer from FEMA.

FEMA trailer standing next to a home, June 2008.

FEMA trailer standing next to a home, June 2008.

Now lovingly referred to as “toxic tin cans,” the trailers came with a slew of baggage.  For one thing, FEMA commissioned whatever company it was that built them to build over 100,000 of the trailers in a span of just a few weeks.  Now I know we’re all shocked to find out that the materials used to build the trailers contained toxic levels of formaldehyde that leached into the air inside the trailers because of the heat, and slowly poisoned the inhabitants who had no where else to live.  As you can see from the photo on the left, many people were forced to park their trailers next to their homes, which were uninhabitable due to water damage.  They have had to watch their homes rot from the inside out, waiting for Road Home money to arrive.  Many people are still waiting.  I just recently had a cab driver who, true to cab driver form, told me his life story – which included having to turn his garage into a living space, because he could not afford to do so to his home, but could no longer stay in his FEMA trailer, because of his wife’s asthma, made worse by the toxicity of the trailer.

My client also had to leave her trailer because of her asthma, but did not have the option of turning her garage, or her home for that matter, back into a liveable space.  When FEMA told her to leave the trailer because she was getting sick, the agency put her up in a hotel, where she lived for a year, waiting for Road Home money or some other kind of assistance.  When FEMA told her to ship out, because she’d extended her stay, she went back to her home, still destroyed after Katrina, and started sleeping on her old ironing board – with no electricity or running water.  She’s been staying there for about a month, squatting in her own home.

Two FEMA trailers as seen from the comfort of an air-conditioned tour bus, June 2008.

Two FEMA trailers as seen from the comfort of an air-conditioned tour bus, June 2008.

Of course, not many people have the oh-so-luxurious option of returning to their flooded, abandoned homes and sleeping on an ironing board suspended between a couple of boxes.  Some people’s homes were washed away, and others were homeless even before the storm hit.  Many of these people have taken up residence in the FEMA trailers still scattered about the city, those that have yet to be picked up by the agency and destroyed (ya, right.  They’ll spruce those puppies up and start handing them out like candy when the next storm hits).  Organizations like Unity of Greater New Orleans recently embarked on a study in order to find out who was still in those trailers, whether the inhabitants were disabled, and whether they had any other place to go.  This plan was thwarted when, a few weeks ago, FEMA announced its plan to sell the trailers to the people still living in them for $5.  Nope, that’s not a typo.  $5. FEMA drives a really hard bargain.  Maybe that’s why it’s so adept at responding to natural disasters.  Or maybe that’s how it’s going to avoid liability for poisoning thousands of families with its toxic tin cans.

Here’s a great eye-opening article about how homeless people struggle in the hot hot heat we have here in the south:

http://www.wdsu.com/news/19852544/detail.html

Really makes you grateful for what you have!

FYI – the Homeless Assistance Unit at the end of the article is the very same unit that we work with closely here at the Homelessness Advocacy Project!

At the Homelessness Advocacy Project, we do weekly community outreaches in order to bring our services to people who either do not have the means to come to our office or do not know we exist altogether.  The purpose is to enable people to have access to our services, and for them to realize that they too have rights to representation.  It empowers them to know that they have attorneys working for them.  Plus it’s fun for me to go and see the various types of shelters and group homes throughout the city.

The first outreach I ever went on was on the West Bank, at the Transitional Care Center in Gretna.  This is place that takes in people who have just finished treatment at a substance abuse facility, and offers them counseling, group activities, housing, and employment assistance.  The reason we go there on a weekly basis is because most of the people who’ve just finished a treatment program are in need of some time of legal help, whether it be to clear up some past criminal record in order to find a job (expungement), or are in need of public benefits (because, if you’ll remember, most of the addicts you find on the streets are in fact mentally ill in some way, and have self-medicated throughout their lives because they have not had access to proper treatment).

Yesterday, we went on an outreach to a place called The Abstract/Last Hope.  This is a men’s shelter, started by a judge and his lawyer wife almost 30 years ago.  It offers services and housing to men with chronic substance abuse and mental illness, many of whom have been abandoned by their families and friends.  Many of the men have been living at The Abstract for as long as it has been open.  This was a really interesting experience for me because being there felt like I was in the presence of family.  The woman who started the facility with her husband, who has since passed away, treats all of the men like her sons, and protects them vehemently.  It was really inspiring to see!  Most of the men we saw yesterday had pretty standard issues, that we deal with all the time – a missing green card, a Social Security denial, debt from issues brought on by Hurricane Katrina, to name a few.  The thing is that all of these problems were “tainted,” so to speak, with the underlying issue plaguing all of these individuals – severe mental illness.  I was speaking to my managing attorney afterward and she commented that it’s hard to serve the population at The Abstract because we never know what is reality, and what is not.  I guess that’s just one of the many issues attorneys in this line of work have to deal with.  Maybe that psychology major from undergrad will come in handy after all.

P.S. – Please visit The Abstract’s website!  There are some great photos, and better information than what I’ve given you.

A Homeless Court Program is something that we (we being Sean, the other clerk in the Homelessness Advocacy Project, myself, and others) are trying to bring to New Orleans as another way to eradicate homelessness in the city.  Homeless Court Programs, or HCPs, are prevalent in California (there are 14 in that state alone), and are slowly gaining popularity throughout the United States.  The first HCP ever started in San Diego a few years ago.  Over the next few weeks, Sean and I will be putting together a report to present to judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and people with deep pockets throughout the city in order to create an HCP here.

Today, I tried to learn what exact an HCP is.  The American Bar Association in all its wisdom put together a wonderful report detailing exactly what an HCP is, and recommending that cities adopt HCPs in order to combat homelessness.  I of course was sold.  Ha!  Here’s the bottom line: homeless people are typically arrested or given citations for “quality-of-life” infractions, such as unauthorized use of a shopping cart, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, sleeping on a sidewalk/bench/beach/insert-uncomfortable-place-to-sleep-here, criminal trespass, or public urination – basically for being homeless.  The punishment for these types of infractions tends to be fines, custody or probation.  Homeless people do not have the resources to pay their fines, and these citations pile up.  Warrants issue, and as a result, homeless people cannot “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and apply for jobs, public benefits like food stamps, Social Security or Medicaid, get a driver’s license or sign a lease.

HCPs are meant to help homeless people by bringing the court to them.  The first important characteristic of HCPs is that they are completely voluntary.  Homeless people do not have to participate if they don’t want to; some homeless people participate only to find out that they do not in fact have any outstanding fines or warrants.  The second important point is that homeless people present themselves to the HCP only after they have participated in a homeless shelter’s program for some period of time.  The shelters actually refer homeless people to HCPs; HCPs do not seek out defendants.  Shelters serve as the “first stop” in the HCP process, as they will only refer homeless people who have achieved certain goals in the program or meet certain criteria; generally, the shelters come up with the criteria on their own.

The MOST important characteristic is that HCP judges DO NOT HAND OUT SENTENCES.  They do not collect fines, put people in custody, or punish people in any way.  Instead, homeless people present proof from the shelter or substance abuse treatment facility they’ve been staying at that they have in fact participated in the shelter activities.  The time spent in these activities counts as “credit” for “time served.”  The activities include life skills, AA/NA meetings, computer or literacy classes, training or searching for jobs, counseling and volunteer work.

How exactly does this work?  The idea behind the “credits,” and HCPs in general, is that the courts are meant to eradicate homelessness.  By participating in shelter programs and activities, homeless people are actually addressing the issues that made them homeless in the first place (illiteracy, mental or physical illness, chronic substance abuse) and doing something about it.  This so-called “alternative sentencing” addresses the underlying problems and enables individuals to empower themselves; quite a better “alternative” from charging individuals fines they cannot pay, keeping them in custody only to release them back onto the streets, or keeping them in prison where they continue to self-medicate by feeding their addictions!

So this is all I know on the subject thus far.  Thanks to California and other states, there’s a lot of data out there about what has and hasn’t worked.  Luckily for us, we already have a judge on board, and lots of other people willing to get this program off the ground.  Where the funding will come from is another story, but where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?

If not, checks can be made out to Margaret Kuklewicz.  I promise I won’t spend the money on jewelry and Hurricanes.

Today I attended a meeting of a group of representatives from organizations that help homeless people throughout Greater New Orleans.  In attendance were reps from Mental Health Advocacy Services, the Pro Bono Project, Unity Welcome Home, the New Orleans Police Department, and the entire Homelessness Advocacy Project from SLLS (that’s me!).  We met in order to discuss a very important issue that worsens the homelessness issue in New Orleans (and in most larger cities, for that matter): discharge planning from hospitals.

The problem can be summed up like this: homeless people get treated at hospitals, and when they are discharged, they don’t have anywhere to go.  They return to the streets with their prescriptions in hand, get robbed and assaulted (especially women), either become ill again or relapse, depending on why they were in the hospital in the first place, and (best case scenario) get picked up by the New Orleans Police Homeless Assistance Unit and driven back to the hospital, or (worst case scenario) die.  Why does this happen?

Well, we’ve managed to come up with two main reasons why this happens.  The first is economic.  There are simply not enough services available to help these people coming out of the hospitals.  If they were homeless to begin with, chances are they have serious mental and physical disabilities, or suffer from chronic substance abuse.  This means that they require a substantial amount of follow-up care, such as counseling, medicine, or physical or occupational therapy.  The problem is that there is a substantial lack of funding to provide these services in group homes, transitional care facilities or in places that offer supervised independent living.  Moreover, there is a lack of political will to allot funding for these types of services.  Another part of the problem is that last year, the Louisiana legislature passed two moratoriums on the licensing of new facilities that would meet the needs of the homeless population being discharged from the hospital.  That means that no new facility or independent caregiver can become licensed to provide medical or other care to people coming out of hospitals.  The moratoriums also forbid any new beds being added to facilities that already provide this kind of care.  If you’re thinking, “um, are you kidding me?”, you wouldn’t be the first person to ask that kind of question.  I usually add a swear word when I’m asking it, feel free to do so as well.

The second issue that leads to this problem in discharge planning is systemic.  Discharge planners in hospitals quite simply aren’t doing their jobs well enough.  We haven’t been able to quite figure out yet why that is.  Part of the problem might be a lack of training.  But I think that the larger issue that there is a complete lack of accountability!  The hospitals don’t have to answer to anybody when they discharge homeless patients in the middle of the night, when the homeless shelters just so happen to be closed.  The police officer who attended the meeting today told us countless stories of finding people literally crawling on the streets in the middle of the night, prescription in hand, confused, disoriented, and scared.  Okay, altogether now: “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?”

Glad we got that off of our chests.  So, obviously the question is, “how do you fix the problem?”  Well, that is what we were trying to address today.  The goal now is to figure out what can be done.  People are either becoming or staying homeless because of the lack of cohesive and transparent discharge planning.  The first step is to get the hospitals to meet and plan with us.  Hospitals constitute a powerful political machine – we cannot alienate them, otherwise we’ll accomplish nothing.  Of course I paint a grim picture, but it’s not like there are monsters working in hospitals.  They usually don’t have anywhere to turn either.  You can’t discharge a person to a group or nursing home if she does not get Social Security and therefore cannot contribute financially to the home.  You cannot get a person Social Security if she doesn’t have identification.  Another consideration is the fact that most group homes offer substandard care; they accept Social Security checks but basically push people out with the terribly low level of care they provide (I should probably mention at this point that this is probably part of the reason that the moratoriums passed; sorry I kept it from you but I wanted to get you mad also…).

Moreover, a situation to consider is one where the legislature has passed an ordinance forbidding hospitals from discharging homeless people to the streets; would we not then get the problem of homeless people strolling into emergency rooms, complaining of shortness of breath, and then using the discharge planner to find them housing?  This is something that the system obviously cannot – and should not – deal with.  Clearly the problem extends beyond just discharges; but nevertheless, something needs to be done at this level.  We don’t want another Kaiser Permanente on our hands – although it looks like we already do.  Stay tuned for further developments.  I’ll be dealing with this issue all summer!

This entry isn’t necessarily about homelessness, but it is a prime example of the holistic approach that I think needs to be used in order to deal with homelessness in New Orleans.  Back in January, I volunteered with an organization called the Alliance for Affordable Energy, an environmental watchdog group that advocates for affordable and clean energy (obviously), and sustainable construction and rebuilding.  But that’s not why I’ve chosen to include it in the homelessness blog.  It also runs a program called LA Green Corps, a part of AmeriCorps that trains individuals for “green-collar jobs.”

The offices of the Alliance.

The offices of the Alliance.

Most of my time at AAE was spent volunteering with LA Green Corps, which had just started with its new round of trainees.  The idea behind LGC is to train young people who have, for lack of a better term, “had it rough.”  That is, most of the trainees have been involved with the law in some way.  Most did not graduate from high school, though a GED is a requirement for the program.  All are from low-income families, and all don’t have very many other chances to make something of themselves.  This program trains them over a four month period in sustainable construction, weatherizing homes (VIP in New Orleans!), and job skills in general.  When I was there, I was teaching them public speaking, basic computer skills, and just how to be responsible.  They get paid for their participation, and following the program, they get help finding permanent employment, but the requirements throughout the program are stringent.  They have to show up on time.  They have to be dressed nicely.  They have to be professional. These are basic skills that we have been taught throughout our lives, knowledge of which we take for granted.  They are skills that keep us in school, employed, or whatever.  But they’re not skills taught to young adults of low-income homes; instead, they learn to survive – and that usually doesn’t have anything to do with learning how to tie a tie.

Some of the LA Green Corps students with Student Hurricane Network volunteers.

Some of the LA Green Corps students with Student Hurricane Network volunteers.

The reason I wanted to showcase LA Green Corps was to demonstrate an organization that is trying to nip homelessness in the bud – before these young adults end up on the streets, permanently, they have a chance to make something of themselves in a booming industry.  Granted, they don’t get LEED certified by participating in the program, but they do get trained to make something of themselves.  And they get trained to avoid homelessness before it can take another victim.

At the LA Green Corps offices, trainers with SHN volunteers.

At the LA Green Corps offices, trainers with SHN volunteers.