Thursday, January 10, 2008

Plaza empty, but troubles are not over for homeless

Chris Turnbow wears a gray Civil War-style beard and arms tattooed with the Grim Reaper and skeletons. Tall and gangly, he stands out in any crowd.

Still, Shamus Rohn, a caseworker for homeless-service consortium UNITY of Greater New Orleans, has lost Turnbow, 52, for as long as two months. For nearly a year, Rohn could eventually find Turnbow in the same spot: a piece of cardboard across the street from City Hall.

In late December, Duncan Plaza was emptied so that the state of Louisiana could prepare to demolish two buildings bordering the park. Now, the mayor's office at City Hall no longer overlooks the tents and trash of a homeless colony.

In some ways, the crisis has ended. But work has just begun for 44 caseworkers trying to house about 250 former plaza denizens, many of them with severe health problems and mental illnesses.

As of Monday, the caseworkers had found apartments for 47 people. The other 200 or so remain in low-rent hotel rooms while caseworkers scramble to find housing in a market where, they say, affordable one-bedrooms and efficiencies remain scarce.

But on Friday, UNITY faces a steep hurdle. The financing for hotel rooms will run out. In November, the city allotted $264,000 for that purpose but hasn't decided whether to add anything to that, said mayor's office spokesman James Ross.

Unless additional money materializes, UNITY plans to borrow money to pay those bills, Kegel said. Keeping 150 people in hotel rooms for a week runs about $60,000, she said, but it's worth the investment.

"We're not going to put vulnerable people back on the street," she said.

UNITY's hotel-financing crisis put homelessness at the top of today's City Council agenda. Council President Arnie Fielkow has requested testimony about Duncan Plaza and the city's increased homeless population from UNITY officials, homeless-service providers, the New Orleans Police Department's Homelessness Assistance Collaborative and the state Department of Social Services.

Typically, homeless clients need at least four weeks in hotels before they're moved to apartments. During that time, UNITY caseworkers try to connect them with social services, employers, landlords and apartments near jobs, usually downtown.

Researchers studying poverty agree that most people who become homeless regain self-sufficiency fairly quickly, often within a month's time, with little or no help. Within Orleans and Jefferson parishes alone, UNITY estimates that, at any given time, 12,000 people are homeless, but it's a constantly revolving group. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which finances homeless services, estimates that 10 percent of those people are likely to be chronic, long-term homeless people suffering from physical illnesses or problems with alcohol, drugs and mental health.

For the chronically homeless, caseworkers celebrate any sign of progress. Caseworker Renida Johnson rejoiced at one client who began talking, taking baths, combing her hair and laughing.

Others may simply require job-search assistance and temporary help with rent. UNITY caseworker Laniker Hunter walked into an employment agency earlier this week and asked for seven jobs, which she received.

"All seven of my guys are working," she said.  Mental health a battle

The hole in Chris Turnbow's gut trumps even the mental illness he has wrestled with for years. A construction worker who grew up on a farm in Arkansas and moved to New Orleans in 2002, Turnbow had lived at Duncan Plaza with a colostomy bag since October, when doctors removed part of his diseased intestine.

Despite daily doses of Seroquil, a common antipsychotic, and Paxil, an antidepressant, Turnbow suffers from bad nerves. One morning, as Rohn prepared to move him into an apartment, Turnbow emerged from his hotel room sleep-deprived.

"How will I feed myself?" he had worried all night.

Later that day, Turnbow wandered away.

The next week, he apologized for his disappearance. He had called home to let his children know that he was getting an apartment, he said.

"And I found out that my grandchild, who's 7, got hit by a car," he said. "I guess I've always been a loner and so I just went away -- just rambling."
As he continued, some details didn't quite match. Before long, it became clear that his story about the call and the grandchild may have reflected a desire to connect with his family. But not a bit of it was true.

Late last month, Turnbow's mother and son drove to New Orleans from Arkansas after hearing him talk with a National Public Radio reporter about Duncan Plaza. During a tearful reunion, they told Rohn that they thought he'd probably died during Hurricane Katrina.

Homeless Pride moves on

Jesse Arbuthnot, 45, was the first of what he calls "the Homeless Pride Originals" to move into the Prieur Street apartment complex. Several others followed him. All get rental assistance from UNITY.

In July, this group of men and women started calling themselves Homeless Pride. As the tent city grew around them, they took a certain satisfaction in living in plain view of the mayor.

A native of the Irish Channel, Arbuthnot does odd-job carpentry and works sporadically for a nearby temp agency that cleans the New Orleans Arena and the Superdome. He is an affable man, a natural diplomat, who became Duncan Plaza's self-appointed law-enforcement officer. At night, Arbuthnot walked around, ironing out tensions. When problems arose, people came to him for help.

But, in the end, he was relieved to leave his post.

The day after his move, Arbuthnot returned to Duncan Plaza, visibly changed by one night's sleep in his own apartment. He was showered, happy and well-rested.

"Looks like 50 pounds of pressure was just lifted off me," he said, smiling. "I'm away from the chaos."

That is not unusual, said Angela Patterson, UNITY's head of outreach.

"The people we're meeting in the hotels today are not the same people we brought from Duncan Plaza," she said.

In mid-December, Arbuthnot ran into one of the other Originals, Tyrone Collins, 38. Before the hurricane, he lived in his family's Lower 9th Ward house, which floated away, Collins said. He hasn't been able to rebuild.

He could, however, get help from UNITY. He had been placed in an apartment about a week earlier.

Arbuthnot walked up to him with a grimace. "Why are you still here?" he asked.

Collins pointed to a key hooked on a belt loop of his pants. It was for his new place on Philip Street, he said, but he hadn't even tried the key yet.

"I'm not going to sleep there until I get a refrigerator and some furniture," he said.

'This is over with'

Many UNITY clients end up in apartments with little or no furniture, since the agency has no budget for that. But it's also not unusual for homeless people to feel uncomfortable alone in a quiet apartment, after months spent in loud, makeshift homeless communities, caseworkers said.

Arbuthnot wasn't in the mood for excuses. He put one hand on Collins' shoulder and made a sweeping gesture with the other hand at the rows of tents surrounding them.

"This is over with," he said sternly. "And all of us are happy it's over with."

Later that afternoon, Collins did go to Philip Street. The key worked, he said. But he spent the night, once again, in his tent across from City Hall. He didn't begin sleeping in his apartment until a few weeks after UNITY placed him there.

Collins himself doesn't know why he felt this way.

"A lot of people are cracking up out here," he said, as he sat in a lawn chair overlooking Duncan Plaza. "Homelessness does mess with your mind."