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Landrieu administration turns deaf ear to community concerns about homeless shelter

31st October 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to build a low-barrier homeless shelter one block away from an elementary school, one block away from a high school under construction, and atop an old toxic waste dump.

“Low barrier” means the shelter will open its doors to people who can’t get into other shelters – including people who are intoxicated and suffering from severe mental illness.

The community around the proposed 3101 Erato St. site is opposed to the location for a plethora of reasons, as expressed in a series of six community input meetings held in October. Tyrone Walker, spokesman for Landrieu’s office, made it clear at the final, October 20 meeting, however, that no amount of protest will change their decision.

The building, owned by Alvin A. Smith, is a former boxing gym. On September 6, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) entered into an “Option to Purchase” the “12,376-square foot office warehouse facility” on .43 acres from Smith for $750,500.

3101 Erato Street is the New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to build a low-barrier homeless shelter. Residents in the area have expressed opposition and are angry that their concerns are being ignored by the Landrieu administration. The site, which sits atop an old toxic waste dump, is located within a one-block radius of both an elementary school and high school.

3101 Erato Street is the New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to build a low-barrier homeless shelter. Residents in the area have expressed opposition and are angry that their concerns are being ignored by the Landrieu administration. The site, which sits atop an old toxic waste dump, is located within a one-block radius of both an elementary school and high school.

After more than an hour of hearing concerns from community members, Walker told the audience, “We have all intentions of building the facility at this location.”

Ben Kleban, founder and president of New Orleans College Prep, which includes the school one block from the proposed shelter – Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary School – said he has many parents who are very concerned about the mayor’s plan.

Booker T. Washington High School is being built one block from the proposed shelter site, and scheduled for completion in December 2018.

“The shelter is meant for people who are intoxicated, and others who aren’t able to get in anywhere else because of the severity of their challenges,” said Kleban. “To put them directly in the pathway of children walking to school, children as young as four and five years old – it is our belief we should not create conditions in which young people come into contact with people using drugs and alcohol.”

At the Oct. 20 meeting, frustration and hopelessness hung heavy in the air.

“My cause is the children,” Booker alum Albert Mims, Jr. told Walker. “I feel disrespected and angry because Mitch forced this down our throats. It’s like having a funeral and then you’re gonna make arrangements.”

“We are not anti-homeless shelter – our problem is the location,” said James Raby, president of the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association and New Orleans College Prep board member. “We are concerned about the babies.”

Raby advocated for using the old Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital, or Charity. Of Erato Street, he said, “This location is certainly one of the worst you could come up with.”

“We are not saying we don’t have compassion,” Kleban said. “People need services and we are not saying don’t do it – just do it in the right way.”

In a telephone interview last week, District B Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell said she’s been advocating for a low-barrier shelter since 2014.

Existing facilities are inadequate for housing husbands and wives who want to stay together, and they lack much needed mental health services, substance abuse services, and a detox space, Cantrell said. “Over 50 percent of the folks on the street suffer from mental illness,” she said, and often turn to substance abuse as a way to self-medicate.

The low-barrier approach allows a “front door, and triage, where we are able to meet the needs of people where they are at.” She also talked about taking “a holistic approach to the root causes of homelessness.”

However, Cantrell said, “Erato Street is the wrong location because it doesn’t have the capacity to create a co-location of services,” as well as its proximity to two schools being in a residential neighborhood and the environmental concerns.

“My concern is that it is in between two schools,” said Paulette Lane, who lives directly across the street from 3101 Erato, and has lived in the neighborhood for close to 50 years.

Lane has concerns about “sex offenders, pedophiles, rapists and murderers” having access to children walking to and from school.

Lane’s husband, Henry, pointed to overgrown lots, thick with trees and vegetation –places he said people could hide, and take children into.

Lane also pointed to two churches within one block of the proposed shelter, and said both church leaders are opposed to the location.

Numerous people expressed their fear of bringing convicted sex offenders or other violent felons so close to young children.

Louisiana state law says registered sex offenders cannot have a physical presence within 1,000 feet of a school. Both Sylvanie Williams and Booker are within 1,000 feet of the proposed shelter.

Asked whether people would be required to show ID to enter, city officials said people would first be “assessed,” and anyone with an active warrant would be handed over to police.

But Kleban is not reassured by any of these claims regarding how people will or will not be screened upon entry, as he’s seen no such plans or policies in writing. Part of the low-barrier model is eliminating the need to show identification, Kleban noted.

On the proximity to the two schools, Walker said, “We heard those concerns, and we checked our facts. We checked ourselves.” He then described conversations with multiple other “school leaders located near homeless facilities,” specifically the principal of Morris Jeff Community School, which was temporarily located for two years across from “supportive housing which services the exact same population as a low barrier shelter.”

Walker said he was told by the principal there had been no incidents and no trouble, and it was actually seen as a positive thing for the problem it was helping to alleviate.

On October 3, Landrieu told reporters, “The lesson that we should be teaching our children is to see the homeless and not be afraid of them.”

“There are at least seven homeless facilities in and near schools, parks, and playgrounds that service kids,” Walker said.

Brock told Walker it was impossible to compare with other shelters, because there are no low barrier shelters in the city, to which Walker agreed there were not.

As Walker continued to stress the program as a pathway to permanent housing, Cynthia Wiggins, president of Guste Homes Resident Management Corporation, told Walker there are “individuals who don’t want to be in homeless shelters,” who will be “roaming the neighborhood and only coming for the services you provide in the moment.”

On security concerns, Walker said they were working with police and will “ensure the site has its own dedicated security paid for in the plan.”

But Kleban said while he has heard of plans for 24/7 security, he has seen no such plan in writing. What happens when the mayor’s term has expired, Kleban asked, and the only plans he’s received regarding security are verbal promises?

The city brought two “formerly homeless” people to speak at the meeting, one who railed on about how the neighborhood around the proposed shelter already has problems, and thus people shouldn’t be “fussing” about the city “trying to help someone who needs help.”

Kleban presented Walker with a petition signed by more than 1,380 “community leaders, pastors, parents, students, teachers and citizens asking the mayor to suspend plans for a low-barrier shelter within one block of two public schools.”

“We were told if there were significant community opposition, this wouldn’t happen,” Kleban told Walker.

Walker said the mayor has never hidden the fact that he intends to open the shelter at 3101 Erato Street.

But in an interview last week, Kleban said no one from the mayor’s office ever reached out to his school. “The consistent message from the beginning has been that the decision has already been made,” he said. “We have a different definition of community engagement. I don’t know the purpose of six community meetings if the decision was already made. It seems disrespectful to the community.”

From their house across the street, Paulette Lane said there was no outreach conducted in the neighborhood – no one at their door, no letters in the mail.

“We think it’s wrong to not include us like we’re nobody,” Lane said.

Cantrell said there had been very little communication between her office and the mayor’s office on the issue.

Kleban said he’d talked to several NORA board members who were “also surprised” about the location. He also said he has yet to have a direct conversation with Landrieu, “but not for lack of trying.”

Both Kleban and Cantrell dispute some of Walker’s “four criteria.”

For one, they note many other locations in the city – particularly in and near downtown areas – where more homeless people are concentrated.

Two, Cantrell said it not as close to the other resources claimed by the city, and there are other locations that are better situated. Cantrell has been vocal in advocating for repurposing the temporary detention center at 3222 Perdido Street.

“It speaks to the needs of what we are trying to create in terms of space and capacity and holding a co-location of services.” There needs to be room for a detox/sobering center, a recreation area, kennels for pets, a safe play space for children, and the capacity to house families, Cantrell said, and that’s in addition to crisis stabilization, mental health and substance abuse facilities.

A designated “crisis stabilization” triage area allows the police and EMS to reduce hours they spend with homeless people suffering from mental illness, she said.

Cantrell said she did a walk-through of Erato Street, and it was immediately clear Perdido Street was “by far the best location.”

Given the proximity to the jail, the mayor’s office has expressed a wariness about treating homeless individuals like they have broken the law.

On “rumors and lies” put out by the mayor’s office that Perdido St. would cost the city $10 million, Cantrell said that is patently false. It is public property under the authority of the Sheriff, she said.

The city can negotiate with the Sheriff, and FEMA has indicated it can be repurposed, she said. In addition, she questioned why it makes sense to pay for a costly demolition when the post-Katrina building can be put to another use.

The idea of the “cost effectiveness” of Erato Street has raised a number of questions. For one, “The city has public assets that can be utilized,” Cantrell said.

The Perdido St. location is “turn key,” Cantrell said, estimating it will require less than $500,000 to retrofit. Erato Street will cost $2 million just to purchase, remediate, and renovate, she said. “We have to be more fiscally prudent in how we spend taxpayer dollars.”

In terms of what the city plans on paying for Erato Street, New Orleans Assessor Errol Williams told Fox 8 News in an October 11 report that, “From my view and from my appraisal staff, the price being paid for this property is well over what the true fair market value of this property is, even despite having two independent appraisals look at it. We can’t get to where they are.”

According to the Fox 8 report, “The assessor’s office recently reviewed the property and valued it at $290,000. Earlier this year, the assessor’s staff did set the value at $690,000 but readjusted the price when the property owner disputed that value.” Williams told Fox 8. “We have photographs of the outside and inside, and we still don’t see nothing more than a warehouse.”

The report states the mayor’s office “disputes the $290,000 assessment.

Avis Brock, Family Liaison for New Orleans College Prep, asked Walker to address the environmental concerns.

3101 Erato Street sits atop an old waste dump, known as the Clio St./Silver City Dump. It operated as a dump from the 1890’s to the 1930’s, and at that time was the second largest landfill in the city, next to the Agriculture Street Landfill.

When Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, gave a presentation to the New Orleans City Council in 2015 regarding the Booker site, she informed them, “Today, dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, other heavy toxic metals, and cancer-causing PAHs contaminate the soil from the ground surface down to at least 12 feet.”

Walker responded to Brock that they’d tested the soil on the Erato Street site, found contamination, and had a “number of plans to remediate the area.” He also noted “98 percent of the site is covered by concrete.” The plan to remediate the top “five to ten percent” of exposed soil had no objection from the DEQ, Walker said. If the remediation plan was not adequate for the DEQ, “They would have stopped us in our tracks.”

Kleban said he finds it “highly problematic the Downtown Development District funded $1 million for the shelter, yet it is not located in downtown – instead locating it in a low-income, African-American neighborhood.”

Instead of trying to help a struggling neighborhood, they “continue [to] dump the highest needs in certain parts of town. Why do we do that as a city?” Kleban asked. “Why do we pick certain parts of town to concentrate the biggest challenges? There is public land in the Garden District. Why not there? Maybe I already know the answer.”

This article originally published in the October 31, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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