Features

Storm shelter

Disaster | The mission changes for a post-hurricane homeless center

Issue: "Illegal passage," April 15, 2006

Tobey Pitman spent 28 years looking for ways to ease homelessness in New Orleans as director of the Brantley Baptist Center, a 240-bed homeless shelter one block from the French Quarter. Late last year, he got an unexpected hand from a hurricane. Today Mr. Pitman stands in the empty lobby of the seven-story shelter remembering the days before Hurricane Katrina flooded the Big Easy: "We were largely full every night."

Nearly every homeless shelter in New Orleans was full every night before Hurricane Katrina emptied the town, according to Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit collaborative battling homelessness. Unity estimates that before Katrina, some 1,100 people in New Orleans were "chronically homeless," or on the streets long-term. Most of the city's homeless took shelter in the Superdome during Katrina and were later evacuated to cities across the country. Ms. Kegel estimates the number of chronically homeless in New Orleans now stands somewhere around 300.

The diaspora of New Orleans' homeless has created a peculiar quandary for Mr. Pitman and the Brantley Baptist Center, which opened in 1927 as a shelter for men during the Depression. When the shelter's steady stream of chronically homeless was suddenly gone after Katrina, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which oversees the shelter, "thought about putting this place in mothballs," says Mr. Pitman.

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But when the shelter's staff "re-tooled and thought about the needs of the city," they realized there was a new population in New Orleans that needed shelter: the armies of volunteers pouring into the city to help with relief efforts. Soaring hotel rates and limited housing options in the still-devastated area make finding a home base a tough task for many volunteer groups. Within weeks of Katrina's landfall the Brantley Baptist Center re-opened as a dorm for volunteers.

On a late afternoon tour, Mr. Pitman pulls the bulky lever on the shelter's vintage, hand-operated elevator to stop on the fourth floor. Rows of bunk beds where homeless men once slept are now covered with the sleeping bags of a volunteer group from California working in the devastated Ninth Ward. The shelter has so far hosted some 1,700 volunteers and provides some of the same basic services it's always offered: warm beds, clean showers, and hot meals.

After spending nearly three decades giving the homeless a place to sleep, hear the gospel, overcome addiction, find jobs, and receive counseling, Mr. Pitman says shifting to housing volunteers is a big adjustment. "It doesn't feel as missionlike, but in the long run we know it serves the city," he said. Mr. Pitman isn't sure about long-term plans but says the shelter will remain open to volunteers through at least the summer. For now, when he hears from a former homeless client, he encourages him to settle down and take advantage of new opportunities, including federal emergency assistance: "Many of them are much better off than they were before. . . . We don't want to roll out the red carpet for the homeless to return to New Orleans."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is offering rental vouchers to pre-Katrina homeless persons directly affected by Hurricanes Katrina or Rita. To qualify, applicants must have been connected to a HUD agency (such as a shelter or rehabilitation center) before the storms. Of the 15,000 people who have applied for HUD assistance since the storm, only 258 were homeless before the storm, according to HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.

Homeless people who were not connected to a HUD agency before the storm are depending on local agencies, church groups, and volunteers for help, according to Unity's Ms. Kegel, who adds that the homeless problem in New Orleans is far from over: "We've got an epidemic of new acute homelessness." The city's new homeless include homeowners and renters who lost everything in the storm, as well as migrant workers who aren't being paid fairly.

Mr. Pitman says everyone who evacuated New Orleans "got a taste of homelessness," and he hopes they will more actively reach out to the homeless in their towns: "The hurricane was a great leveler of all folks."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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