Laniker Hunter-Davis is an outreach worker for UNITY of Greater New Orleans. She and her partner, Joycelyn Scott, drive and walk around the city trying to reach the hardest-to-reach homeless people. One night, I tagged along.
“The first place that we’ll be stopping is at Washington Park. It’s off of Elysian Fields. We have a lady that’s in that park with her dog, and she can’t utilize the shelters because of her dog. So we gonna go check on her.
“They closes the park at a certain time, and the people just move to the sidewalk with their blankets, and they’re usually lined up,” says Joycelyn. “So we’ll just make the block and see.”
Joycelyn and Laniker know the woman they’re looking for well. They worked with her to apply for permanent supportive housing.
“We’ll usually park here,” Joycelyn tells me. “This is usually our first stop, 'cause this is where the majority of our women are that we are really worried about on the street. Just coming to let them know we still working on your case, we trying to get you out of here.
“She know we coming out here first to her. If we don’t, she’s gonna let us have it — you went and saw somebody else before you came and saw me — that’s how she is.”
And so when they don’t see the woman, or her dog, Laniker and Joycelyn start to worry.
“She’s not here,” says Joycelyn. “Let me look in this alley. They’re usually on this side cause it’s darker.”
“This is her blanket that she has tucked in the fence, and she probably has some clothes in the bushes,” observes Laniker. “She may have gone somewhere.”
Laniker wonders if the police came and issued her a citation.
They check another spot where the woman sometimes goes, but she’s not there. They say they’ll come back and look for her tomorrow, and if they can’t find her they’ll check the computer, to make sure she didn’t go to jail. But tonight, they head to the library.
“A lot of times you will have homeless people who will walk in and request services, but in many, many cases, where people are as we say — the sickest of the sick, the most vulnerable — those people do not come to be served. They’re terrified of office settings, or they’ve been shunned or mistreated, disrespected in those settings. And so they hide.”
Angela Patterson is the Deputy Director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans. She says by taking services to where the homeless are, UNITY’s Outreach team has created a paradigm shift.
“Because you didn’t have a waiting list approach," says Patterson. "First come, first served. You are now housing those who are the most needy.”
Over the years, the work of UNITY’s outreach team has gone from managing homelessness to ending homelessness.
“(In the past) it brought cookies, crackers, water to people, and it visited with people on the street, but that’s where people were left: on the street,” says Patterson.
Back in the Outreach van, Laniker and Joycleyn spot two people sleeping in Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall. The woman, who we’ll identify by her middle name, Marie, has MS. She can’t check into a shelter because she can’t stay there with her companion, who takes care of her.
Marie says, “We woke up Tuesday morning and someone stole from us. Sleeping is always a difficulty because of that. You never know when you wake up who’s going to be around you and what’s going to be going on.”
Joycelyn and Laniker give Marie and her companion a bus pass and a gift certificate to Burger King. They promise to check on the couple’s paperwork and also to look into getting Marie another wheelchair.
Back in the van, Joycelyn tells me, “It’s heartbreaking when you have to leave them sleeping on that hard concrete knowing eventually, when you get off, you’re going home to to your warm bed. And you don’t have the sickness that they have. And she’s really sick to be laying on that concrete. You go home and think about it. You have to pray at night. I do. I pray at night.”
Joycelyn says when Marie finally moves into a home, she wants to find her a bed. She says she’ll ask her church and work her resources.
Learn more about UNITY, or call UNITY's warehouse directly, at (504) 438-9300 to donate furniture, pans, plates and other household items to people going from homeless to housed.