A year ago, almost to the day, Gambit Weekly posed the same question to the Rev. Tobey Pitman, in response to similar rumors. The answer, then and now, was the same. "We've been here since 1927, and we don't have any intention of ceasing our ministry here in the city," he says.
Pitman is marking his 25-year anniversary this year as head of the Brantley Baptist Center, located on Magazine Street not far from Canal Street. Today, Pitman is standing in the lobby, wearing the center's trademark blue denim button-down shirt. It's embroidered with the Brantley's name, motto --"Ministries of Hope, Hospitality, and Mercy" -- and a small image of someone with open arms welcoming a man carrying a big red rucksack.
A few steps away from Pitman, workers bustle behind a high wooden counter, one of a handful of places where local homeless people can receive mail and phone messages. Centered behind the counter is a small chalkboard that today carries a biblical message from Proverbs about the evils of indulging too much, followed by a less flowery sentence from "Jim" on the same topic.
A few blocks away, inside the Immaculate Conception Parish Center, a nun in full habit hands out donuts and Styrofoam cups of coffee, a Tuesday-Thursday tradition at this daytime drop-in center for the homeless, which is struggling to stay open because the church's funding has decreased. Director Don Thompson says that, thanks to recent press, they received some generous donations that will hold them until June. "But we're not out from under the hatchet," says Thompson.
Homeless people view Immaculate Conception and Brantley as anchors within the Central Business District. But as the CBD becomes increasingly gentrified, homeless people are growing more concerned about their future here. The Brantley has no intention of leaving them stranded, says Pitman. But he has seen a marked change in his surroundings. "When we first moved to this site in 1962, there was no one here," says Pitman. The block was pretty much abandoned.
For instance, the building kitty-corner from the shelter wasn't occupied when Pitman arrived in 1969 -- and hasn't been since. But now it's surrounded by scaffolds and workmen. When the hammers stop pounding, it will be a boutique hotel. Against this new backdrop of potted palms and upscale cafes, the presence of homeless people is more jarring. Yet there are more homeless than ever, says Pitman. In the past year alone, the Brantley served 165,000 plates of food to its overnight residents.
According to Unity for the Homeless, on any given night Orleans and Jefferson parishes hold 6,400 homeless people. The number of metro-area people who are homeless in one year's time might be quadruple that number, or 25,000. Most homeless people, with some help from Unity's 70 local agencies, will end their homelessness in three months -- but then someone new takes their place.
This continuing stream of newly homeless is a product of increased layoffs, a poor economy and the rising gap between people's income and housing costs. "People, even if they're working, simply don't have enough income to keep up with housing," says Martha Kegel, who heads up Unity. She and a board member recently traveled to Columbus, Ohio, where the community's public-private partnership has, within the past five years, created more than 500 new units of supportive housing (an apartment plus necessary social services) for the homeless. Unity would like to create a similar partnership in New Orleans. "It is better for people to be in shelters than living on the street," says Kegel. "But neither one is a satisfactory alternative."
In the meantime, the Brantley -- like other shelters -- must deal with rising numbers of homeless. At some point, Pitman says, he would like to move the center to a larger space, one that accommodates more than its current capacity of 240 men, women and children under 7. "But we could not move to Michoud and still serve the homeless," he says. Practically speaking, he believes, the Center needs to stay in this area since homeless people need to be near things like bus lines, job and temporary-employment agencies, Charity hospital, the Veterans Administration hospital, the VA and government benefits offices -- and the French Quarter, where establishments frequently call the Brantley looking for a last-minute dishwasher to fill a shift.
Still, one person lands a job and then another person walks through the center's doors, says Pitman, pointing at the front doors, which are bracketed by a sunny bank of windows. Outside on the sidewalk, a Brantley worker sweeps up trash -- mostly cigarette butts -- with a bright-green broom and a big, red dustpan. Across the street, behind big, shiny windows, waiters serve up today's lunch special -- grilled drum with a crabcake and asparagus tips.