The shelters may not be the answer for all under the Pontchartrain Expressway…

Because this too, is what community looks like...
This too, is what community looks like…

Like many of you, I have been reading about the coming forced evacuations of the 120 plus homeless people who currently reside nightly underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway in downtown New Orleans. City officials began handing out 72 hour notices on Monday evening, citing health violations, safety concerns and drug use as parts of the problem which are necessitating this move. Outreach workers will be on hand to help steer people into the shelters, where resources and case management will be made available to assist people in finding more suitable, long term housing.

Sounds like a win-win on its surface: resources made available for people who need it and the city doesn’t have to worry about a growing health and safety problem…but you just know it’s not that simple.

People aren’t that simple, much as we might want them to be.

So then, why might somebody choose the streets of New Orleans, choose to live under an overpass instead of a shelter with resources?

1. Shelters have rules and curfews. Oftentimes, dismissive types claim homeless people don’t like shelters because the curfews and rules prevent people with addictions from getting drunk or high. And for some, that may very well be a part of it but that’s not the whole story. First off, not all homeless people are addicted to substances. Second, people also bristle at curfews and rules because homelessness doesn’t suddenly instill in people the desire to give up their freedoms. They are adults, and most adults don’t want to answer to strangers, be told what to do, when to eat, where and when to sleep, what time to be at the shelter and when it is too late for them to leave, or lose their bed. A loss of so many freedoms most of us take for granted can be a pretty demeaning feeling in an already often demeaning situation, feeling less than, stigmatized, not in control of your own situation…out on the streets, there’s still an element of control, of making independent choices most adults I know would be loathe to give up. Can’t sleep and want to go for a walk, have a smoke, make a phone call? Curfews and rules might say nope.

2. The men and women who live under the overpass have formed a community, one that could be broken up in a shelter. No communities are perfect and some can be dangerous and certainly, with assaults and sexual exploitation that have been documented under the Pontchartrain Expressway, this community has its dangers, but it is a community. People there look out for each other, know each other, know when someone’s not doing well and sometimes even care for one another. That’s what people do. To many, this community is a known and it’s voluntary inasmuch as there is a choice on whether or not to be in that community. There are understandings there, and to go into the shelters is to give this up and put yourself at the mercy of the unknown. There may be someone in the shelter somebody has a past with, somebody that makes another feel threatened or unsafe. It can be a very hard choice.

3. What about their belongings? Most shelters, due to space restrictions, have set limits on how many belongings you can bring through their door. When you’re homeless, oftentimes the stuff you have with you is what you have left of your present and former identity. On the streets, there are no restrictions upon how much you can bring with you and to be told by strangers what is necessary for you to have and what is expendable, that anything outside of two bags is superfluous and to be told you need to go through your possessions and decide what to keep and what to throw away is extraordinarily difficult for anyone who has already lost so much.

4. In the shelters there may be issues with staff treatment. Let me say first that I can only believe the vast majority of people who work in the shelters do so because they care, because they really want to help and work very hard, but having myself worked in shelters it is a fact not everyone is like this. There are predators. There are abusive staff. In San Francisco, staff like this were called “jailers.” They exist, and they can do a number of things to shelter residents. Curse them out. Kick them out arbitrarily. Coerce favors for perks at the shelter…use your imagination. It isn’t a regular occurrence I’m sure, but it happens. And if you are a shelter resident it happens to, it can be extraordinarily damaging.

5. The shelters have time limits, and many of those time limits are short. Three weeks at the New Orleans Mission. Ten days at Ozanam. That is not enough time to fix the kind of problems that lead to homelessness. Now, at some shelters, people do have options for more time, up to a year if they are in mental health or substance abuse programs and for some that may be precisely what they need to right what needs righting, but not everybody is ready to accept that kind of help. Not everyone thinks they have a substance abuse problem and many with mental health issues may dislike the stigma that comes with treatment, adding to the stigma of being homeless or they may not think they need treatment at all, have a lack of insight or be against medications. Mental health and substance addiction are very complex issues and when combined they can be that much more so. And with these time limits, where do people go when they time out? Back to the shadows of the overpass? Maybe to a different neighborhood or city, or to jail?

6. Many of these shelters charge nightly, some upwards of ten dollars a night. One can go to various churches and get fee waivers, but it’s difficult to cart your belongings from one place to another to get a waiver, then back to the shelter at night and in the morning, have to leave the shelter all day, still carrying belongings. It’s more loss of autonomy and more answering to others. Either that or you can pay the ten dollars a night, money many don’t have so they are  then forced to panhandle to get. With all of this, it can be easier, freer, more autonomous and independent to stake out a spot on the streets and just stay there. Not ideal obviously, but for some it can seem a better choice.

Now, as a social worker for the past twenty plus years I do feel that some of the people who are forced out of the homeless encampment will get a chance to do something different, maybe get treatment or mental health help, maybe even housing and that is certainly a win for them, especially in the long run but I also feel some won’t be ready for these steps. Some have been on the streets so long to try to acculturate themselves back into a life away can be difficult. Mental illness can make it more difficult. Mental illness and addiction, even more so. Some just won’t be ready.

It should seem obvious the people living under the expressway are doing so for a reason. You may not understand what those reasons are or even disagree with them, but that makes these reasons no less real or valid. Rather than kicking them out, why not continue to provide outreach, outreach, outreach while helping them to be safe, right where they are until that outreach leads to a home, or until they are ready to face any problems they might have. If there are public health issues, clean it up, or provide incentive for the people staying there to clean it up themselves. Provide waste disposal, port-a-lets, whatever’s necessary. Bring the solutions to them and put in the time to make it work, take hold for real. If worried this might lead to people never wanting to leave, find out exactly why it is they want to live under an overpass rather than their own home and work towards solutions to these wants. Find the bigger and better deal and present it to them. It may cost more, but it sure will be more effective in the long run and isn’t helping people the point of all this? If not, it should be, unless this really is being done because of neighbor complaints, pending Saints games at the Superdome or because some consider their fellow citizens, people, to be eyesores.

Rather than the police just forcing them out, possibly traumatizing some and then fencing it all up, there should be a mixture of responses here. This is a community, and for now it has become their home. In social work, there is a oft-quoted phrase: “Meet people where they’re at,” which essentially means to provide the amount of help people are ready to accept and help motivate them over time to accept even more.

Forcing them out of their home with a 72 hour notice is not meeting people where they’re at and for some, not the right thing to do at all.

Have a nice day.


Checkpoint Charlie’s, The Music Box and DIY Choices…

Checkpoint Charlie's

Every once in a while, one is reminded of the choices we make in life, of how we sometimes get mired in the vacuum’s we create, and how my vacuum ain’t your vacuum and vice versa…and I guess we all have our own qualifications for what constitutes a good vacuum/life and what don’t, what is necessary for happiness and what isn’t.

Unfortunately, we also will oftentimes use our personal positions to judge those around us for the choices they’ve made.

Hell, I do it and will probably continue to do so to some degree, but I try to limit my judgements to those people whose actions I believe are harming others, be they a politician, a business person, a friend or stranger.

Not that any of this should matter to anyone but me really…but hey, you’re reading it, so anyways…

I watched a movie last evening called Last Train Home about Chinese migrant workers, and what they have to do to get home for the Chinese New Years, and about one family in particular and what it did to the kids to have their parents gone 360 days a year for the purpose of working in the city to make money to raise the family. Pointed out by one train passenger is how China has very few brands of their own, and how essentially they are the manufacturer to the world’s companies.

So, as the family in the film disintegrates, as the sweatshop conditions are shown, the tragedy and misery of absent parents and such consequences, and the horrific attempts to ride these trains are shown…I wondered about the American corporations that have a hand in this horror story, and I also wondered if they would have these sort of conditions present in this country if they could…some might say, of course they would and that’s pretty greedy ugly, and some might say of course not which would beg the question, why is it okay then to do that to Chinese families?

And this made me think again of people who will look at the entire mess that unfettered Capitalism can create and choose to opt out, say enough is enough and just fade on out, create their own paths, live their own lives in whatever way makes sense to them, screw what anybody else says.

Personally, I know I’ve made a number of choices and life decisions some people around me don’t understand. No worries, they don’t have to as it really isn’t for them to understand…and in the growing wealth disparity our politicians seem completely comfortable with, it would appear that more people will soon opt out to live their own lives – either by choice or lack of choice – by way of communal homes, off-grid, homeless travelers or just plain homeless…etc.

And this reminds me of a night awhile back where I was hanging out at Checkpoint Charlie’s on the Marigny side of the Esplanade and how this band of people some might call gutter punks asked to come onstage and play, and how they were allowed to do so…and just how good they were.

Hell, I bought a CD.

And in researching this band, homeless teens and twenty-somethings who reside in New Orleans and Denver and wherever else they see fit, I could see a freedom they have that most people don’t even begin to understand, or want to, and that’s their choice, to criticise rather than understand, but the choices of this band, to do it themselves, to live the life they’ve chosen…well, their choices make a fuck of a lot more sense to me than the choices of the Chinese family from the film or the business owners who see the conditions that family lives in and proceeds to shrug their shoulder and count their money. Hell, British Petroleum these days sure is full of a lot of these mother-shruggers…here and abroad…

And I have no problems judging  them, because those business owners are hurting people and they continue to do so everyday, to make money…and that’s a problem whether we choose to ignore it or not…

Here’s the band I saw that night at Checkpoint…enjoy:

The Music Box – Black Dog

So unless you’re hurting others, live and let live…but if you’re inflicting pain for the purpose of your own desires…well, become a politician then, and make the connections you’ll need to make some real money…

…you useless, unnecessary bastard.

Have a nice day

PS…the band is also shown in the book Sidewalk Saints about New Orleans street performers…good book, check it out….

In Memoriam…eight kids

photo by Eliot Kamenitz - Times Picayune

From the Times Picayune…

In this impromptu gang of friends, “Band Camp” was the oldest, at 26. He was taking his turn with a cardboard sign, appealing to the charitable instincts of drivers on Elysian Fields Avenue as they slowed for the red light at North Claiborne. A month from now, he would likely be doing the same thing in a different city with different people, bound together by their preference for hitching rides on freight trains and living on the margins of society.

It was an unusually warm morning in late December. The drinking had taken its toll, and a shirtless Band Camp staggered through traffic. Still, one driver tossed a $5 bill. Another unloaded a couple small bags of Sun Chips, to the delight of the others hanging out on the neutral ground.

They happily discussed the lunch they would buy once they collected enough cash. But they were also in mourning. Later Thursday afternoon, they would attend a memorial for the eight young people who perished in a fire in an abandoned 9th Ward warehouse two mornings earlier.

Continue reading:

‘Traveling kids’ linked by tight networks in many cities – Times-Picayune

And on a more personal note:

One night a few years back, I was hanging out at Checkpoint Charlies in the Marigny, having a smoke and a drink and on stage was a guy doing his best with an acoustic guitar, but I think I was one of maybe five people in the place when in walked two kids. They slid up to the bartender and asked if they could play. Obviously, they were a couple of the “gutter punks” one sees on the streets, hanging out in the Quarter at night in Jackson Square, the Haight in San Francisco, the U-District in Seattle, Burnside in Portland, Peace Park in Madison or in so many other places across the country. The bartender shrugged and pointed at the guy on stage and the two kids waited for him to finish his song before asking if they could play a couple. He looked out at the empty bar and with a bemused expression said, “Sure, why not.”

One of the two kids, grinning now, ran to the door, signaled his friends outside and in walked six more kids carrying instruments. They quickly set up and began to play a raggedy song that was raw, and it was brilliant. By the time they had finished their third song the bar had almost filled with curious people, dancing, drinking and having a great time. The kids had a few CD’s for sale and I bought one.

I’m listening to it right now as I type this, and when I read about the fire…I wondered if any of those kids I saw that night were inside the squat.

Having been a social worker for the past many years, I’ve become somewhat familiar with the kids in the above mentioned towns. Many are troubled, many are not. Many are brilliant writers, musicians, activists and many are not. Many are living that life by choice and some don’t feel they have one. Some struggle with addictions and many don’t. Doing what I do, I’ve heard all the disparaging comments thrown their way over the years and then some, by a lot of people out there who want to dismiss them as a nuisance rather than accept their choice in lifestyle or offer help if they are looking for it, and that’s too bad. Some of those kids have the courage to reach for a life more free than most anyone else who typically reads the morning paper, and sometimes they suffer the hard nights of their choices, just like we all do.

And sometimes, those nights are harder than anyone could have imagined.

For those that have passed…RIP.

For those that knew them…I’m sorry for your loss and I wish you the best – with tolerance, equality and mutual aid…

– Drake

To my Friends in San Francisco…

This is what Drew Brees looks like right before he throws another touchdown pass...

So yeah, I lived in San Francisco for five years and I still have a few friends in that fine city who for some reason still follow the 49ers, and I am guessing that some of them even think that they have a chance against the Saints…uh, sorry…no, not a chance.

So to L.L., M.T., F.T., P.F., B.R., better luck next week…

And on another personal note…to Mr. CW Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle: six years later and you are still making a name for yourself by being the self-proclaimed voice of “common sense” in San Francisco, speaking for corporations and developers by continuing to attack the homeless? Really? Don’t much care that you finally moved within the city limits…relocating across the Bay doesn’t diminish the entitled conceit held within your melodramatic prose.

Go kick a pit bull instead…the dog might bite a sense of new-found decency into your elitist, moneyed priorities.

Go Saints!

11:00 pm update:

Ok, so maybe a chance, but not quite enough. Nope, not quite enough at all. All the best to Reggie Bush…

Have a good night’s sleep.