N.O. homeless asked to evacuate Expressway; Mission responds

This morning, at 9 am, the City of New Orleans requested all homeless men and women remove themselves and all of their belongings from under and around the Pontchartrain Expressway. The effort has caused a mass migration of homeless individuals that will leave the capacity of the New Orleans Mission, along with many other public assistance providers, overfilled.

This State of the Homeless in New Orleans letter seen below and attached, written by the Executive Director of the New Orleans Mission David Bottner, is in response to this situation and aims to provide a glimpse of the Mission’s long-term plan to reduce homelessness in our city.

150 to 1:
Overcoming the homeless situation in New Orleans

To New Orleans Natives, Transplants, Visitors and Curious Readers:

One hundred and fifty days — That’s how long I’ve been on the job — Enough time for summer to give way to fall, chilling temperatures to inspire a cup of hot chocolate, and our Saints season to sadly be half over.

My name is David Bottner and I’m the new Executive Director of the New Orleans Mission. During my first 150 days as the head of largest homeless shelter in the city, I’ve experienced moments that have challenged, saddened and touched me — all bringing forth the many emotions that come with being a human being. As I write this, it is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (November 10-18). With that, I felt it imperative that I bring attention to our city’s current plight with poverty and homelessness. Especially with more eyeballs focusing on New Orleans, as several large scale events prepare to take place over the next few months, including the Sugar Bowl, Super Bowl, Mardi Gras and the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Not long ago I was under the Crescent City connection’s expressway on a cold, windy day. I brought a box of donuts to share with the homeless there. As I visited, there was a gentleman next to my car who appeared tired, weary and lost. He had not eaten in days and was shivering cold. After spending a few moments talking together, tears began to run down his cheeks. As he wept, I noticed his teeth were in bad shape and the dirt on his clothes was apparent. I took that man off the street that day. I gave him clothes, shoes and some essentials before dropping him off at a local rehabilitation center; but I knew I had to do something more. 

My experience that day led me on a journey to the New Orleans Mission, where I now find myself as the Executive Director. When I took the job, I did so with the determination I would earn a salary of $1, enabling me to commit myself fully to something other than money — the people. I didn’t pretend it would be easy; I knew everyone at the Mission was in for some of life’s most difficult situations we had ever faced — but the best things often come out of our greatest challenges.

At present, the homeless situation in New Orleans is alarming and seems to be growing at unprecedented levels since Hurricane Katrina. You can see evidence of it under that same expressway and beyond. More and more people are struggling to make ends meet every day, and the Mission is almost always at full capacity as are other homeless shelters in the city. It is estimated that roughly 82,000 of the city’s 360,000 residents are classified as impoverished.

Last February, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released a report that found the national rate of homelessness was 21 per 10,000 residents in 2011. New Orleans’ rate was nearly three times the national average, at 56 per 10,000, ranking the Crescent City second in the nation. The most common causes for this epidemic usually revolve around substance abuse, lack of affordable housing, mental illness, poverty and unemployment — all of which are not impossible to alleviate and overcome with the right help.

Now think about all the people you know. From that group there are most likely some who are quietly struggling to make ends meet or are on the brink of homelessness. But they don’t mention it or not ask for help. Why? It’s usually because of pride. It’s human nature not to want to reveal vulnerabilities to others — it signifies we are “weak” and we can’t make it on our own. But as humans we aren’t supposed to make it on our own. We are a social species who crave interaction and are interdependent on one another. Statistically, in New Orleans 71% of residents have sub-prime credit scores, 37% of households live in asset poverty, 24% live in extreme asset poverty, and 10% of working households don’t have a vehicle.

There once was a time when the solution for overcoming homelessness was “sweeping it under the rug,” as in out of sight, out of mind. But really, what good does that do? It doesn’t fix the problem. It exacerbates the situation, giving the impression there is no hope for you if you fall down with no way back. I am here to tell you that there will always be an outstretched hand ready to pull you up. Whether it’s the New Orleans Mission, Catholic Charities, United Way, the Salvation Army or the hundreds of other wonderful and passionate groups in our area, there is a network of agencies ready to lend a hand.

While that network of agencies may never completely eliminate homelessness, we can reduce its numbers. That is why the New Orleans Mission is on a journey to empower those struggling in our community with hope through new programs designed to instill confidence and ultimately foster sustainability. Since June, we have been developing new entrepreneurial services that will make our facility self-sufficient and help those struggling get back on their feet. These services, such as our new Mission Lawn Care & Maintenance Service, concentrate on providing our homeless guests with jobs that make them productive members of society, building hope and helping improve the community while also increasing revenue for the Mission. Every one of the disciples in this program has the opportunity to work as part of the lawn service crew and is connected with a savings program developed by the Mission to put them on the road to financial independence.

At the Mission, we take the homeless off the streets and give them the help they desperately need but may not directly ask for. It is our goal to support those who are committed to changing their lives, building job skills, and becoming financially stable. Each time a new business is launched, people who could not get jobs will begin to work again and regain hope that a better quality of life is reachable. I want the Mission to be more than a bed and hot meal. I want it to be a beacon of hope — the light at the end of the tunnel where lives are restored.

While we pursue this new type of outreach and further our long-term plan to reduce homelessness in New Orleans, we have already accomplished the following since June 2012:

• Assisted 60 people to enter full time rehabilitation through our Road to Recovery Program

• Provided beds to over 214 men and women each night who were living on the streets of the city; This will steadily rise to over 250 after today’s migration

• Generated paying jobs for more than 25 individuals who were unemployed for more than a year

• Increased meal service to six days each week, serving 15,000-16,000 meals monthly; This will steadily rise to 18,000 after today’s migration

• Expanded amenities for our Women’s Shelter Program, which brought in 20 women from the street

• Doubled the number of times we clean up trash under the expressway daily

• Instituted an outreach that goes in to the French Quarter to search for and bring the homeless back to the Mission

• Provided free medical services every Thursday to hundreds of homeless or low income individuals at our LSU clinic, located on the Mezzanine level of our main facility

• Hired a full time case manager who is a Licensed Addiction Counselor as well as a mental health specialist since the majority of our homeless guests suffer from addictions and/or mental illness

• Developed a high-performance team of 10 incredible workers for our Mission Lawn Care & Maintenance Services who are now able to receive weekly pay checks, provide quality lawn care to our customers, and generate income to supplement the Mission’s monthly expenses

Chronic homelessness has been around for longer than anyone can remember. An estimated 63% of the people who experience homelessness are adults who enter and exit the system fairly quickly. According to the fact sheet published by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “the remainder lives in a combination of shelters, hospitals, jails, prisons, or on the streets.” Whether it happens through poor decisions, unfortunate circumstances, or just plain bad luck, it can strike anyone at any time. I know there is a stigma associated with the homeless; I will not deny that. Most people avert their eyes or hurry by when coming across people on the streets of the city. But what I will deny is that nothing truly can be done about the problem until they are willing to shift their belief that change is possible. It just takes a new kind of thinking for an old kind of problem.

I believe we are definitely on the right track and will continue to create a nurturing environment where men and women can be educated and counseled and spiritually inspired. Our objective is to empower our guests to remove some of the emotional and physical blocks that have prevented them from moving forward so they can take the steps to getting back on their feet. This includes creating jobs and savings programs for the homeless while teaching them how to save and budget for a life after the Mission. As the Mission becomes self-sufficient, I believe it will manifest a transformation in our homeless guests and show them that a better quality of life is reachable.

Please consider getting involved with any of our area’s fantastic charities. Whether you donate your time, talent or dollars, it has great value in bringing hope. Together, we can make a difference.


David Bottner
Executive Director
New Orleans Mission

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