New Orleans Council-woman LaToya Cantrell. (Courtesy Photo/www.latoyacantrell.com)
By Della Hasselle, Special to the NNPA News Wire from the Louisiana Weekly
A new “low-barrier” homeless shelter, an initiative led by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and the Downtown Development District, moved one step closer to reality this month after the New Orleans City Council approved operating funding and officials met with San Antonio officials to discuss a similar shelter that had been built there.
The progress comes a little more than a year after members of the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance making it illegal to block public rights of way with tents and large furniture, effectively clearing large swaths of homeless encampments under the Pontchartrain Expressway.
“It’s been a main priority for awhile,” said David Winkler-Schmidt, a spokesman for Cantrell. “A lot of complaints have taken place in the district about the homeless, and we understand where these homeowners and businesses are coming from, but these are human beings. They need compassion and they need help.”
Generally, low-barrier shelters require the homeless to follow fewer rules for them to stay, which allows the shelter to serve a greater population, Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District, has said. Without requiring restrictions such as sobriety or having an ID, more people – especially the mentally ill and chronically homeless – can access services by just walking in.
The New Orleans low-barrier shelter is slated to be built down-town and modeled after a $101 million homeless camp in San Antonio, called Haven for Hope, which includes an addiction recovery-based Restoration Center and a mental health facility.
Like San Antonio’s, the New Orleans shelter will become a multipurpose center for the homeless, according to a press release sent out by Cantrell’s office, and will include a detox center and mental health care.
Those two main components are “critical for New Orleans,” Winkler-Schmidt said, adding that the detox center will enable officers with the New Orleans Police Department to bring people who are passed out or who are unruly and intoxicated somewhere besides Orleans Parish Prison.
It will allow homeless people a place to store their personal belongings, shower and to be safe, he said.
On Monday, Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and other New Orleans representatives met with San Antonio officials to find out more about that city’s low-barrier shelter for the homeless. The “fact-finding” trip was initiated to find out how the shelter works and figure out how to model the New Orleans shelter from it, according to Winkler-Schmidt.
Councilmember Cantrell was accompanied fellow New Or-leans City Councilmember Nadine Ramsey, Sam Joel from the Mayor’s Office, DDD’s President Kurt Weigle, New Orleans Police Department Officer BB St. Roman, who is in charge of the NOPD Homeless Assistance Unit, two representatives from the business community and Ellen Lee from the City’s Office on Community Development.
Officials announced that like the San Antonio model, the New Orleans shelter development would be an organized public private partnership working with the business community, government and homeless advocates.
“We need to identify and open a temporary shelter while working on establishing a permanent one,” Cantrell said. “We are also going to assess and then plan for opening a permanent shelter within the old VA Hospital as well as producing a five-year development plan for the site and operations.”
The trip came just a few days after the Council approved the 2016 budget, which included funds for the shelter.
For more than a year, Councilwoman Cantrell has been building support and securing funding for the shelter. During budget hearings in November, the Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office announced the city was allocating $1 million from City budget for operating funding, matching $1 million that the Downtown Development District (DDD) had pledged for capital funds for the shelter.
In the past, officials have estimated that the outdoor shelter would cost about $4.5 million to build and incur annual operating expenses of about $3.5 million.
On Wednesday, Winkler-Schmidt said he couldn’t say what the total project would ultimately cost, but did say that Cantrell had been actively fundraising, to see if more people in the community were willing to help out with the project.
In the release, Cantrell affirmed that the low-barrier shelter had been one of her “biggest priorities” during the recent budget hearings.
In 2011, the City announced a Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness and created the New Orleans Interagency Council on Homelessness to oversee its implementation. Last year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced a plan to end veteran homelessness altogether by the end of the year.
In 2007, there were 11,619 people living on the street in Jefferson and Orleans parishes on any given night, according to UNITY of Greater New Or-leans.
A UNITY report released earlier this year found that the number had reduced by 85 per-cent to 1,703, which is below the pre-Katrina number of 2,051.
In Monday’s release, how-ever, Cantrell said there’s still work to be done.