Wednesday, January 16, 2008

New Orleans homeless - "Please tell our story"

"Are you taking pictures down here?" Billy asked me. I couldn't tell if the tone was supportive or threatening.

"No, I haven't, we're just down here to love you," I answered.

Down here was under the Claiborne Avenue bridge in New Orleans where an estimated 1,000 people have pitched tents, set up abandoned mattresses, and taken to the ground in order to survive. They are the homeless population of the city, but only part of it. Thousands more are scattered across the city.

His answer surprised me - "Take pictures. Take a lot of them. Please tell our story - people need to see what's going on here."

What's going on there is a lot. There is a whole hierarchical civilization with defacto leaders and a system of moving from space to space as the community sees fit. For example, when I go back to find Billy an hour or so later, Otis, one of the leaders, asks if it's the Billy on the other side of Canal Street's divide. Otis wants to lock the recently installed porta-potties, asking me to get him a lock so he can keep crackheads out of them. When I bring bleach to him to help him clean the toilets, he rounds the containers up after several people grab them. He just needs to tell them to bring them back with one loud shout, explaining the purpose and they are back that quick.

Levester recently moved under the bridge after his mom moved to Mississippi following the destruction of their home in the lower 9th Ward, and then the FEMA trailer they were living in being taken away. When I ask him why he didn't go, the answer is two-fold. One, New Orleans is home and he doesn't see any reason to leave. The second is that he's been searching for a way to leave his mom's house and get out on his own. "I'm a grown man, I can't make her keep me anymore," he says.

The stories are obviously unique, but they have similarities. There are numerous war and military service veterans that can't figure out why they are living the way they do after serving their country. Billy stamped his foot passionately and repeated the mantra, "What did I fight for? What did I fight for? THIS! THis is what I fought for!"

But more than anything, I hear the question asked over and over, why isn't anything being done to help us? I know a lot of people probably think it's not their duty or that homeless people are crazy or brought it on themselves, but it's not the way that it is. When you shake a man's hand, look into his eyes and ask his name, things change. That might sound Pollyanna-ish, but I mean it. When you hear that a storm wiped out all possibilities for a man and his family, when you hear that man ask you for a roll of toilet paper instead of food, when you cry and struggle and sweat out a night of sobriety like one of my friends did with a man named Shawn ... stuff isn't ever going to feel the same.

A good number of people living on the New Orleans streets came form the 9th Ward. Whatever unique things contributed to their ultimate result of living under that bridge or outside the locked gates of Jackson Square or along the Riverwalk, these are largely a people that have had the collective backs of the nation turned on them.

I know that you've seen pictures of the destruction. I know that you've maybe felt bad for the residents of the 9th Ward at some point. And chances are you've made a callous joke, or assumed they got what was coming to them, or maybe you haven't cared much at all. But my impassioned plea is that whether you will go experience the people and the utter destruction yourself (go with me this July when I make my next trip) or you will just donate to a trip and listen to the stories, remember the people of NOLA. I see myself in the eyes of the homeless there. I hear my life story in the tales of those still in FEMA trailers trying to rebuild their homes and lives. It's our responsibility as Americans and responsible citizens to look out for those ruined by Katrina and the lifestorms that have followed. And if you're a Christian like I am ... read the Bible and tell me what our responsibility might be.

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