NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Where will you sleep tonight? About 12,000 people in greater New Orleans don’t have a definite answer to that question.
Maybe underneath an overpass. Maybe in an abandoned house. A lucky few in shelters. The rest are subject to the weather or the violence of another person’s desperation.
By way of contrast, some 5,130 people were said to be homeless in Los Angeles’ skid row area in 2006, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority.
Southern Baptists are responding to the need with a cooperative effort involving First Baptist Church in New Orleans, the Louisiana Baptist Convention and the SBC’s North American Mission Board, plus the partnership of the New Orleans Mission as well as financial assistance from Mayor Ray Nagin’s office.
“We’re on the front end of this homeless crisis and it’s not going away anytime soon,” said David Crosby, First Baptist’s pastor. “As followers of Jesus Christ, we must commit ourselves to doing what we believe the Lord would do, and being where we believe the Lord would be.”
This crisis is yet another ripple effect of Hurricane Katrina. In the weeks immediately following the August 2005 hurricane and mass flooding, there were no known homeless people left in greater New Orleans, but within 18 months the number was double what it had been before Katrina, according to a local homeless advocacy group.
People came to New Orleans -– or back to New Orleans -– with a job lined up, thinking they’d find housing, but nothing was available.
“We lost so much housing for the poor and the working poor,” Crosby explained. “Now we’ve got foreclosures going on with our rental properties, which is forcing even more people out of homes. There’s just no place to live.”
An article found in a Google search of the Internet, published by the Christian Science Monitor last March, vividly depicted the situation.
“Facing a severe shortage of affordable housing, displaced residents returning to the city along with an influx of construction trade workers are being forced to sleep in everything from cars to flooded-out houses to long-abandoned motels,” the writer, Bill Sasser, recounted. “The population now includes the chronically homeless who never left the city or have returned; residents who lost their homes to the flood and have run out of federal assistance -– or may have never received assistance -– and cannot afford higher rents; and thousands of Latino workers who came to rebuild the city, many of whom brought their spouses and children and cannot find a place to live.”
But that was March. Now there’s a winter chill. Temperatures in New Orleans on average dip to the low 40s in December.
“The homeless crisis in New Orleans continues to mount as colder weather settles upon us,” Crosby wrote in the Nov. 19 issue of his e-mailed New Orleans Updates. “More than 300 people are now living in and around Duncan Park, according to the latest estimates I have seen. Restroom facilities are unavailable or horrific. It is a growing community of employed and unemployed persons with or without a political agenda, but certainly without proper shelter and other essentials.
“All functioning homeless facilities in the city are full now for both men and women,” Crosby continued. “The shelters are turning away many people every day.”
Later in the same Update, Crosby wrote, “I have heard many people asking why something has not been done.”
In Crosby’s next e-mail, Nov. 30, his words showed that he had taken action. The pastor had received approval from the mayor’s office and from the New Orleans Mission, plus buy-ins from the Louisiana convention and NAMB, to build emergency housing for 126 men next to the New Orleans Mission on West End Freeway.
The structure will be a 120-foot-long, 30-foot-wide tent of ultraviolet ray-treated, polyester-reinforced Rip-Stop material, with a galvanized steel frame, similar to what first responders used in the aftermath of Katrina.
The tent, slated to open in mid-December, has a five-year life expectancy, Crosby said. It’s easily and quickly erected, climate-controlled, already approved by the fire marshal and is the least expensive of options available.
“The tent dramatically expands the capacity of the New Orleans Mission, which will administer the facility and provide bathrooms, showers and meals for the residents,” Crosby wrote. “This effort to care for the ‘least of these’ will be accompanied by spiritual teaching, evangelism and other efforts to bring transformation to those who are now living on the streets.”
The $181,690 proposal Crosby drew up for the emergency shelter’s operation from Dec. 15 through April 15 includes about $18,000 for the structure, $86,400 for food, and the rest for security guards, chaplaincy and additional food service personnel.
The Southern Baptist/New Orleans Mission partnership builds on a relationship established when 185 Baptist Collegiate Ministries students descended on the mission during Mardi Gras break in February 2006 to gut the hurricane-ravaged building that had housed 200 men a night prior to Katrina.
“They were just wonderful young people,” said Lou Banfalvi, the mission’s director of operations. “Their energy was exuberant. The third floor, that was a job, bless their hearts. They had to rip out the ceiling –- it was rotten -– and get out all the fiberglass insulation. Filthy work. Unhealthy. And the smell was not exactly pleasant. They did all that, and then they washed the floors!”
Banfalvi said New Orleans Mission is glad to partner with Southern Baptists.
“We can help each other,” Banfalvi said. “And most probably with all the people we’re taking care of, we need all the help we can get. We’re feeding daily and housing daily up to 100 men for right now. Hopefully we’ll be at capacity of up to 250 by January, including the emergency shelter, and that will take a lot of manpower.”
A seven-person mission team from First Baptist Church in Cleburne, Texas, where Daniel Crosby -– David Crosby’s brother -– is pastor, laid the flooring for the emergency shelter during the week after Thanksgiving. Another team, assembled locally, will be raising the walls and making the structure shipshape.
“Danny has led five volunteer teams to work in New Orleans since the great devastation,” David Crosby wrote in his Nov. 30 Update. “They arrived, providentially, at the very moment we needed a skilled carpentry crew to help us build a floor for the emergency sheltering program.”
Crosby also is chairman of New Orleans Baptist Ministries, which holds in trust the four Baptist centers in the city: Brantley, Carver, Rachel Sims and Friendship House.
Brantley has been closed since Katrina, Crosby said. NAMB recently determined it is uninhabitable, with no heating/air conditioning in part of the building, insufficient water pressure and flooring that sags under the weight of even one person.
The Carver and Rachel Sims facilities do ESL and GED training during the day, and at night host volunteers in town to help with Katrina recovery efforts. Friendship House is a refuge -– constantly full -– for troubled women and their children.
Weighing the need for housing with his awareness of the limitations of the New Orleans Baptist centers led to the partnership with New Orleans Mission, Crosby said. Don Cooper, president of the mission’s board of trustees, is one of two First Baptist members on the board, and board member Richard Randalls is pastor of Lakeview Baptist, another Southern Baptist congregation in New Orleans.
“As a minister of the Gospel and a follower of Jesus Christ, I had to do something,” Crosby said. “My church could not shoulder this burden alone, but I knew that Baptists would respond if we could find a solution.
“I contacted Mayor Ray Nagin, and he immediately affirmed the idea of an emergency shelter and made some funding available,” Crosby continued. “So a coalition of Baptists, city officials and the New Orleans Mission formed to help the homeless and bear witness to the love of Christ.”
Prayers, cash donations and donations of clothing -– particularly men’s socks and men’s underwear -– as well as blankets and pillows would be appreciated, Crosby said. “First Baptist is delighted to serve as a clearinghouse for such gifts,” the pastor said. The church’s address is 5290 Canal Blvd., New Orleans, LA 70124; phone: 504-482-5775.
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, online at www.BaptistMessage.com.