Archdiocese fills vital roles at city’s new ‘low-barrier’ shelter

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

A new walk-in shelter offering social services, three daily meals and overnight accommodations for up to 100 homeless individuals at a time is partnering with three ministries connected with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, St. Jude Community Center, Inc. and Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana are bringing their decades of experience in working with homeless, hungry and chronically ill populations to the new facility, formally named the City of New Orleans Shelter and Engagement Center.

The 100-bed shelter, which quietly opened on Aug. 8, is located on the second floor of the former Veterans Affairs Hospital at 1530 Gravier St., across the street from the old Charity Hospital.

“Archbishop Aymond’s desire has always been that the archdiocese be part of the solution in addressing the needs of the homeless population of our New Orleans community,” said Marianite Sister Marjorie Hebert, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. “(At Catholic Charities) we think of ourselves as the Good Samaritan; the homeless – all these individuals – are the man who was left on the road.”

Pairing up for better health

Catholic Charities’ collaboration with the new shelter involves assigning an on-site case manager from its Health Guardians program who will help shelter guests arrange their doctor’s appointments, assist in the filling of prescriptions and refer them to counseling, housing support and other “wrap-around” services provided by Catholic Charities. Sometimes this assistance includes simple tasks such as helping the individual get his Medicare or Medicaid card.

“We engage in a relationship with the individual and really navigate them through the health system,” Sister Marjorie said. “We help them with whatever they need and literally walk with them – we don’t just say ‘Go to this doctor.’ We bring them to the doctor until they can be a little more independent.”

Based on a model developed in New Jersey, the Health Guardians program recognizes that some of the best eyes and ears on homeless and under-served populations are EMS, police and others who continually see the same people using emergency rooms as their sole point of entry to medical services.

“(Health Guardians) began as an extension of the services Catholic Charities was already providing in behavioral health, in trying to deal with people who needed somebody to watch over them and work with them – emotionally underdeveloped individuals who, for a variety of reasons, could not find themselves living at home with family, either because they didn’t fit into the family model, or the family didn’t know how to best care for the individual,” Sister Marjorie said. “Many of these people are homeless or don’t have a strong foothold in a family unit.”

Meal prep done by St. Jude

The assistance to the shelter being provided by St. Jude Community Center – an outreach mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church – is just as vital. Because the shelter is not licensed for on-site cooking, about eight members of St. Jude’s staff will work from their community kitchen at 400 North Rampart St. to prepare the shelter’s three daily meals and deliver them to the Gravier Street facility.

St. Jude will oversee the delivery of a simple daily breakfast of cereal, fruit bars and milk; prepare fresh sandwiches for the daily lunch; and cook and deliver the nightly hot meal, prepared in large batches in advance at St. Jude and reheated at the shelter.

St. Jude will be paid $4 per shelter guest, per day, to defray the costs of staffing, utilities, transportation and food. The latter expense receives a major boost through donations from Second Harvest, yet another entity with archdiocesan roots.

“Second Harvest has graciously said they would increase their donations (to help St. Jude fill the meal needs at the Gravier Street shelter), but we still have to go out and buy some of the food,” noted St. Jude’s director, Marianite Sister Beth Mouch, explaining that Second Harvest cannot always supply adequate amounts of items such as meat, cereal and bread.

Even with its additional work at the new shelter, St. Jude Community Center will continue to serve weekday breakfast and weekday and Saturday lunch to walk-in homeless and hungry guests at its North Rampart Street base, an outreach the center has provided since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

St. Jude also operates one of the largest food banks in the city, again with the help of Second Harvest, providing groceries three mornings a week to those who have stable housing but need food assistance. St. Jude’s second floor also provides overnight shelter to up to five unaccompanied and homeless women at a time.

“In a recent Gospel, we hear Jesus telling Peter, ‘Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep,’” Sister Beth said. “Feeding the hungry is one of the Beatitudes, one of the corporal works of mercy, so we are trying to directly respond to the Bible invitation and a command of Jesus.”

“And it’s more than just (technically) feeding the hungry,” she added. “Treating the homeless with kindness is extremely important as they’re being fed. What we hear the homeless asking for, more than anything, is to be treated with dignity.”

A stairway leads to the low-barrier shelter of 100 beds. A covered space on the ground floor (pictured) stores items that cannot be taken into the shelter.

A ‘low-barrier’ shelter

The shelter’s $2.5 million cost of construction, which involved retrofitting the VA’s former radiology floor, was paid for by the City of New Orleans. Its additional $1.5 million in annual operating costs are being shouldered by the city, the Downtown Development District (DDD) and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

The shelter’s daily operations have been contracted out to the Start Corporation, a Louisiana-based non-profit that has been helping the mentally ill and homeless achieve healthier and more productive lives for 35 years.

Significantly, the walk-in facility is being operated as a “low-barrier” shelter, meaning that it has no sobriety requirement, entrance fee or required minimum stay. It also operates 24/7, removing the need for forced morning departures.

Before entering, guests are required to leave larger possessions, such as bicycles and tents, in a covered storage area on the ground floor. This area also has numerous “amnesty lockers,” which guests must use to stow other items not allowed inside the shelter, including guns, alcohol and drug paraphernalia.

An outdoor stairway leads to a security checkpoint and the main shelter space. There are small tables for dining, private showers, dressing rooms and restroom facilities. The shelter’s dormitory-style configuration of 100 twin and bunk beds includes five hospital beds for those with physical challenges and a screened-off sleeping area for women and transgender guests.

A welcome station staffed by housing advocates, licensed social workers and LPNs is located within the main sleeping quarters. The shelter also has a designated area in which guests may stay with their pets.

Years in the making

Opening a low-barrier shelter in the CBD for New Orleans’ growing homeless population – a goal championed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his successor, Mayor LaToya Cantrell – has been in the works for more than five years. Sisters Marjorie and Beth and other archdiocesan officials were heavily engaged in the planning process, participating in neighborhood meetings, looking at potential properties and meeting with officials from city government, the DDD, Unity for the Homeless, EMS providers and other social service leaders.

Catholic Charities, St. Jude  and Second Harvest are among the shelter’s roughly 20 service partners meeting guests’ needs such as vocational guidance, mental health intervention, street-based first-aid, substance abuse help and transitional and permanent housing.

Sister Marjorie said the shelter reflects Catholic Charities’ mission to treat individuals with dignity and respect and “find a safe space” in which they can reach their God-given potential.

“It all comes down to something very simple,” Sister Marjorie said. “Jesus said when you do it for one of these, you do it for me.”

The City of New Orleans Shelter and Engagement Center welcomes donations, including the following urgently needed items: socks, adult diapers (male and female) and feminine hygiene products. To learn how you can help, call 517-1815 or email lauren.fitch@startcorp.org.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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