The Times Picayune: New shelter to open for New Orleans’ homeless, but advocates want more services

March 16, 2018 – Katherine Sayre and Richard Webster

After learning of a homeless man in a wheelchair who’d been cited around 60 times for aggressive panhandling, failing to appear in court and other misdemeanors, New Orleans Councilwoman Stacy Head argued at a hearing last year that the man — and others like him —should be locked up and forced to see a judge.

“I represent the whole city, and there is not one part of the city that’s not upset about the aggressive solicitation, the aggressive panhandling, the being urinated on,” Head said during a Sept. 19 hearing on municipal court funding. “At some point, we’ve got to decide: Who do we value the most? And if you have been harassed 60 times by the same person, at some point, we as a society have to start saying, we cannot have this anymore if we are going to have any semblance of a civilized society.”

The man’s name was Michael Stacker. Unbeknownst to Head or the council, the 59-year-old had died six days earlier, one of at least 60 homeless men and women who died in New Orleans in 2017, according to a new count cataloguing their deaths. 

The troubled lives of Stacker and other homeless people who died in 2017 often involved a cycle of emergency room visits and jail bookings, as mental illness and substance abuse persisted to the end, advocates say. The most frequent causes of death were drug overdoses. 

The frustration that Head voiced at the hearing last fall is illustrative of the debate taking place in cities across the country, about how to respond to so-called “frequent fliers” of the healthcare and criminal justice systems who are homeless. Officials are juggling multiple concerns: the safety of residents; the health and well-being of homeless people; and the high cost of emergency room treatment and incarceration.

New Orleans’ answer is a new, 100-bed homeless shelter scheduled to open later this spring on the second-floor of the old Veterans Administration hospital downtown, on Gravier Street. The facility is called a low-barrier shelter, referring to the lack of a sobriety requirement, entrance fee or minimum stay. There are no religious expectations or forced morning departures that other overnight shelters require. Access will be 24-7. 

Although generally viewed as a positive a step, some worry the new shelter’s success will be limited because it plans to open without accessible substance abuse and mental health services at the same location – a one-stop-shop approach that has succeeded in San Antonio and Houston. Without those services, some think New Orleans’ new shelter could become just a place to sweep homeless men and women out of the view of tourists and locals.

The development of the shelter during Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration started as a discussion about creating a sobering center to divert drunk but mostly harmless people from jail. The plan was also to establish a medical detox clinic for drug and alcohol addicts starting sobriety, and a mental health crisis center.

Mayor-Elect LaToya Cantrell, who as a City Council member was part of the initial effort to develop the shelter, said she doesn’t know why the mental health and substance abuse components weren’t ultimately included in the shelter construction. She said as the planning process moved forward, she was no longer included in the discussion.

Cantrell, who takes office in May as the shelter opens, said she plans to add expanded mental health and substance abuse facilities at or near the shelter, in her first year in office. 

“I worked on this for three years, and the scope was to have all of these services provided in one location,” she said. “For me, it’s not at the scale that I would like.”

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