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Baptists rally to N. Orleans homeless needs

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Homelessness in New Orleans has changed in the nearly three years since Hurricane Katrina, and Southern Baptist ministries have embarked on strategies to better meet the needs.

Groups serving New Orleans’ homeless estimate there are about 1,000 chronically homeless living on the streets of the city. Another 2,400 are in some sort of homeless housing at any given time. More live in abandoned housing, but these numbers are difficult to estimate. Homeless advocates say the number of homeless people is double what it was before Katrina while the general population is perhaps half what it once was before the hurricane’s August 2005 onslaught.

The makeup of the homeless population also has changed. Only perhaps half the number of “traditional” homeless people -– the possibly mentally ill, drug and/or alcohol abusers –- are back in New Orleans. Now, many of the homeless are workers — legal or not — who didn’t expect to find housing so unaffordable when they arrived in post-Katrina New Orleans to work on construction projects.

Another segment of the homeless consists of people trying to get back into their homes that were damaged or nearly destroyed by the storm and the resulting levee breaches. Still more teeter on the brink of eviction because of the dramatic increase in housing prices since Katrina.

“This creates another opportunity for Southern Baptists to make a spiritual difference in New Orleans,” said David Crosby, chairman of the board of New Orleans Baptist Ministries and pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans.

“We are working on configuring a ministry for the homeless and disadvantaged in our city,” Crosby said. “We want to be part of a continuum of care that would take the homeless from emergency shelter through rehab to permanent housing or home ownership. We are … hoping to come up with something that will be a real contribution to the community.”

As Southern Baptists seek to make the most effective long-term impact on homelessness in New Orleans, the six-story Brantley Center, located in what was the city’s garment district, is up for sale. When Southern Baptists purchased the then-50-year-old building in the early 1960s, it became the fourth location of a continually expanding ministry to the city’s homeless. Surrounded now by luxury condos and hotels, and no longer in an area where the homeless congregate, the center’s 250-bed emergency shelter and rehab program has been closed since Katrina.

The 100-year-old Brantley Center also had become too expensive to maintain, with serious water, heating and power issues in addition to storm-related damage. The land on which the Brantley Center is located does have value, however, because of the high-dollar revitalization that has taken place in the blocks around it. The North American Mission Board will distribute proceeds from the Brantley sale to homeless ministries operated by local and state Baptist partners in New Orleans.

“I think the storm provided a semicolon in this ministry so that we may retool for even greater effectiveness for the decades and needs that lie ahead,” said Tobey Pitman, a NAMB missionary who serves as director of the Brantley Center since 1979 and is a member of the New Orleans Baptist Ministries group.

Even as the praying, thinking, talking and strategizing are taking place, so is ministry.

NAMB’s three ministry centers in New Orleans -– Carver, Rachel Sims and Friendship House -– minister daily to the homeless, as do members from various local churches.

“We hand out water, blankets, hygiene kits -– toothbrushes, soap, that type of thing,” Friendship House director Kay Bennett said. “Last winter we’d go under the bridge with hot soup,” she said of outreach to the 200 or more people camped out in tents or other makeshift shelters under the Interstate 10 overpass near Claiborne Avenue. “Whenever we receive things that can be used with the homeless, or things that might open a door to a Gospel witness, we pass them out.”

Friendship House also provides transitional care for women with children, with housing for a maximum of four families.

“Pre-Katrina, I could transition someone in six months,” Bennett said. “Post-Katrina, it takes at least a year because of the cost of housing, and one woman I have pays $1,000 a month for daycare.”

Aware of the need for more beds for the homeless than were available last winter, First Baptist — with the assistance of NAMB, the Louisiana Baptist Convention and the city of New Orleans — purchased and helped fund the construction of a barracks-size tent to house the homeless at New Orleans Mission, which is affiliated with the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.

“We are absolutely so grateful for this,” said Lou Banfalvi, New Orleans Mission’s director of operation. “They put it up for us, too, and are doing so much to help us.”

With bunks two beds high, six rows wide and 10 rows deep, the temperature-controlled tent can sleep about 140 men a night, Banfalvi said. Those who sleep there go inside the mission for meals, showers and chapel services.

Regarding the post-Katrina aspect of homelessness of homeowners whose residences were damaged or nearly destroyed by Katrina, Operation NOAH Rebuild addresses that need through partnership of NAMB, the Louisiana Baptist Convention and Baptist associations and churches in the metro New Orleans area.

As Southern Baptist assistance moved from chainsaw tree removal to gutting to repairs, renovations and rebuilding, 1,193 residential projects had completed by June through the NOAH initiative, with 1,203 more somewhere in the process.

In addition, five churches have been gutted and completely rebuilt, 17 more are being rebuilt and nine more are in the pre- or post-assessment process.

NOAH does more than construction. Each volunteer looks for opportunities while he/she works to tell of the difference God has made in their lives. As a result, at least 388 people have made professions of faith to date and another 20 have recommitted their lives to God or made other decisions.

More than 21,000 volunteers have helped with NOAH, and this summer at least 500 a week are scheduled, said David Maxwell, NOAH’s project director. More volunteers are always needed, but a significant dropoff in volunteers looks to be looming in September -– just when the weather cools down a bit, he added.

Baptist Crosssroads is another way Southern Baptists address homelessness in New Orleans. First Baptist New Orleans partnered with Habitat for Humanity and the local Baptist Community Ministries foundation to redevelop the Upper Ninth Ward. To date, at least 40 homes have been completed in the area of the city now known as Baptist Crossroads. Another 25 homes are under construction. More will be built as $20,000 per house is received for construction materials, said Bob Brian, Baptist Crossroads executive director.

“In our current business model moving forward, a $20,000 sponsorship will suffice to complete a home,” Brian said. “Baptist Crossroads is currently in the process of expanding its vision to include a broader model of community development, especially education.”

While the face of homelessness in New Orleans is different now than it was prior to Katrina, the people caught in it are just as important as ever to Southern Baptists.

“We’re working hard and it’s not easy work,” Crosby said. “Southern Baptists are very much at work in the city of New Orleans, and going forward in this time of recovery we want to be as efficient and effective as we can be with our resources and our strategy.”

David Hankins, executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, said the convention is participating with local Baptist leaders in developing an effective strategy for ministry to the special needs of the people of New Orleans.

“We are committing time and resources to share the peace of Jesus in the city,” Hankins said, “especially with those who are in crisis.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.