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Is New Orleans Mission getting a facelift?

27th July 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

The rebirth of Central City has been led by the redevelopment Renaissance occurring on Oretha Castle Haley. The one-time storefronts of the former segregation-era Dryades St. have been transformed into cultural centers, coffee houses, and cafes. Anchored by such tourist attractions like Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Market and the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, OC Haley Blvd. seems poised to serve as the conduit of the CBD/Ware-house District’s bohemian prosperity into Central City.

Except for the huge homeless shelter.

Next to the Pontchartrain Ex­pressway at the gate to O.C. Haley’s newfound hipster yuppie-ism sits the New Orleans Mission. Lines of homeless linger each day around its doors awaiting a bed for the night and a meal — amongst other services its staff provides.

Critics call the Mission “an eyesore” and a magnet for vagrancy chasing away potential prosperity. Defenders note that the Mission has the best record of saving individuals from the streets thanks to its nationally recognized rehabilitation programs.

These advocates for the New Orleans Mission note that homeless people tend to congregate in downtown areas and moving the mission would intensify the vagrancy problem, not improve it as critics suggest.

Yet the Mission’s current Executive Director has reframed the debate so that the two perspectives are not diametrically opposed. Could the Mission become an asset to Central City’s gentrified rebirth, and at the same time provide a better method to mainstream its tenants back into becoming functioning members of society?

David Bottner believes so.

He has launched a $6 million effort to change the façade of the Mission’s O.C. Haley facility. The new face for the building would be fronted by a boutique that would provide jobs for the recently homeless residents. The Mission’s major rehabilitation and job-training programs would move to a new property on the Northshore, with enough acreage to expand the number of people he can rescue from the cycle of homelessness.

First, Bottner seeks to restore the ‘look’ of the original building.

As he explained in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, “The Building will be put back to its 1908 design — which was Levitan Furni­ture store. It will have no markings that it is even a homeless shelter.”

To the casual observer, he explained, the Mission will offer no evidence on its front that it is a shelter, with residents entering into a new ‘day room’ to the rear. “We will have no lines for evening check in, and with our additional day room we are building, this provides a safe day alternative to those staying under the bridge.”

“We will be removing all signage. We believe that the beauty of our building will be a welcome addition to the entry point of the street.”

A retail store that compliments the local ‘art market persona’ developing on O.C. Haley is a key part of Bottner’s plan.

Pedestrians will not only pass in front of a restored turn of the century building, they will also have a compelling place in which to shop. That store will provide jobs to the formally homeless residents, while the day room will provide an alternative in which to spend the hot afternoons.

In other words, the Mission will appear as just another artsy market, fitting in perfectly on O.C. Haley, and much of the intensive rehabilitation programs will have already been transferred to the other side of the Lake.

The Mission’s new facility in Lacomb, Bottner explained, “allows us to serve —within the next year — as many as 330 people, adding almost 80 more beds. It gives us a greater opportunity to see more people go through our Rescue, Recovery and Re-engagement process.”

The executive director agreed with his critics that it is best to treat men and women away from the CBD. “You see, I firmly believe getting the men and women out of the city away from those that are still struggling daily in our shelter. This removes a ton of temptation.” Homeless people do have a sort of community on the streets. Their relationships with other homeless constitutes a ‘comfort zone’ of sorts, that’s easy to return to if rehab becomes difficult. Giving people a new setting, surrounded by nature proves not only a tonic for the soul, but a new start, he outlined.

“Also we will have increased job opportunities to expand our staffing services, thanks to the Northshore [facility]. We will also add our Mission culinary program to the Northshore, opening up tremendous doors of opportunity — especially for women. The Northshore will also have a farmer element that we will add by the end of 2016, again offering further education opportunities.”

But Bottner’s plan will take money. “We seek $1.6 million to complete our $6.1 million renovation. And $500,000 to complete the Northshore — so a total of $2.1 million.”

Time is of the essence, he added. While he believed the homeless situation in New Orleans may not be getting worse, it certainly has not improved. “All I can say is our numbers the past three years have been very consistent in total people served through the shelter. How­ever, we have seen greater numbers of people wanting longer term help.”

Bottner believes that the Mission’s plan would have more of an impact on reducing the chronic transient population than the new homeless “outdoor shelter” that has been proposed.

“I am not a proponent of it,” he maintained. “I believe the money they are talking about spending would be better used by the shelters in place now — expanding our facilities and beds.”

“You can’t compare a $107,000,000 facility in San Antonio and say, well, that model [for a park] works there.”

Noting that the New Orleans Mission has the highest success rate in getting people permanently off the streets in the region, Bottner wondered, “If there is a 10-year plan to end homelessness, why was this shelter was not in that original plan? Why do we not provide housing first,” for the homeless population instead of a park?”

Bottner pondered the question to Mitch Landrieu, “Do you really see the city’s job is to run a homeless center? Why not leave it to those who do it well now and support us?”

“We [at the New Orleans Mission] offer medical (LSU, Tulane, Ophthalmology, podiatry), education, addiction counseling, trauma counseling, financial literacy, mental health care, mentoring, vo­cational training, re-entry, small groups, food, clothing, shelter, identification, stability, and restor­a­­tion with family and hope. Why would you not enhance what we do first and then consider other options?”

This article originally published in the July 27, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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