From Skid Row to Duncan Plaza

Homeless people need more than a place to live. They need an array of social services and their own "space.'



As a young child in the 1950s, I recall the weathered faces of the homeless men who sought refuge beneath our raised home on Magazine Street. Farley was the only one that I knew by name. Some said that he was shell-shocked from the war. Others referred to him as just crazy. I knew that he was mentally ill and wondered why he was not in a hospital.

On almost a daily basis, he could be seen and heard walking the streets of the lower Irish Channel uttering incoherent and rambling sentences that always ended with the words, "God Bless America." Following a frigid night, his stiffened body was found in one of my dad's company trucks where he was allowed to sleep. Farley died of hypothermia. Although I did not share my feelings with my parents, I felt a sense of loss when Farley died.

In 1972, as a senior sociology student at the University of New Orleans, my professor allowed me to research the skid-row district located primarily at the corner of Camp and Julia streets. Ironically, the core of skid row was located within three blocks of my childhood home.

In my effort to determine the causative factors of why the homeless lived such lifestyles, I spent all my days and many nights among them as a participant-observer, getting to know the homeless on a very personal level. I can even recall some of their names. Charlie Cotton, Bill Baylus and Jack Daw were just a few of the homeless men that would become my friends. All suffered from chronic alcoholism. None wanted to be rehabilitated, and all eventually died living a lifestyle that few understood.

Sometime in the late 1970s, when the urban renewal efforts of the city administration sought to reinvigorate the neighborhood in and around Camp and Julia streets, I was invited to sit on a committee that studied the homeless population that congregated in the area. As a committee, we warned the mayor that if the city did not plan to relocate the homeless subculture properly " before urban renewal efforts began " these people would simply disband as a concentrated group and quickly move to several economically distressed areas of the city. We suggested that urban planners develop and relocate the homeless to a sparsely populated area near the river where they could re-congregate as a subculture without being intrusive to those who lived within the mainstream.

In addition, the committee proposed setting up a triage facility in the newly concentrated area staffed with professionals who would assist those interested in being rehabilitated and mainstreamed, but accept the lifestyles of those not motivated to change. While we agreed that giving the homeless their own "space" within a major city like New Orleans was controversial, government and urban planners who resisted the concept later found that the homeless who once congregated near Camp and Julia streets had rapidly dispersed into several areas of the city.

Homelessness is not unique to New Orleans. It is a social problem that has persisted since biblical days and exists in virtually every city in America. Although there has been a concerted effort by the media and community leaders to homogenize the term "homeless" to reflect one type of individual, the etiologies of homelessness are complex. Although some live on the streets because of genuine economic distress, the homeless subculture is largely comprised of a diverse array of mentally ill, chronically addicted, and severely under-socialized individuals. Sometimes, even petty and career criminals who choose not to work in legitimate professions will live among the homeless in their efforts to avoid detection.

It is incumbent on city leaders and community activists to place aside their political, personal and ideological beliefs and agendas and approach the current homeless crisis with objective pragmatism. While many of our city's homeless warrant community assistance, particularly those who face severe economic hardships, most will shun efforts to address the real issues that placed them on the streets. While some are motivated to address their substance abuse and mental health problems, local rehabilitative resources are scarce. While the chronically mentally ill deserve a warm bed in a residential setting, a public policy of de-institutionalization, inadequate commitment laws and the lack of long-term psychiatric bed space make addressing their needs nearly impossible.

Short-term or even permanent housing for homeless people with substance abuse and mental health issues " without proper motivation or rehab resources " will merely delay the inevitable. They will eventually return to the streets and congregate in areas of the city that have weak social infrastructures.

As a result of urban renewal efforts, both the skid-row district and the homeless camp at Duncan Plaza are no longer part of the New Orleans landscape. If city leaders, however, do not acknowledge that current efforts to address the homeless population are cosmetic at best, it is just a matter of time, if that time has not arrived already, before the people who live on the streets will seek safety and solidarity by re-grouping in homeless cells throughout the city.

As controversial as it might seem to some, developing and allowing them their own "space" while providing a spectrum of social, medical and occupational services to those who are motivated and desire to be mainstreamed should not be considered a frivolous venture.

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