The last time I was in a Louisiana homeless shelter I was reporting on what the Times-Picayune called the "largest mass migration in modern U.S. history."
Just after the New Orleans civil infrastructure collapsed emptying the city, I arrived at the RiverCenter in Baton Rouge. This enormous facility had been designed to house everything from hockey games to trade shows but not to house people.
This week, as winter weather ravaged most of the U.S. limiting our movements and canceling appearances on our Southern (Dis)comfort tour, we adapted by making unplanned visits to other shelters.
The Jefferson CARE Center had recently moved into an old orphanage. Owned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, this shelter was very different from the RiverCenter and not just because it housed thousands fewer people but because this currently expanding homeless facility is permanent.
The same day I wandered through the bright rooms and met with the facility's cordial, efficient and savvy staff; the 2010 U.S. Census released advance figures for four states. Louisiana's earlier-than-most elections necessitate that the feds include them among the demographic information issued sooner than later.
There weren't any surprises in the numbers. Orleans Parish is still missing 29% of their pre-Katrina population. Jefferson Parish -- closest in proximity to New Orleans and home to the Jefferson CARE Center -- lost only 5% taking over as Louisiana's second most populated region. There are now nearly 800,000 persons in these two regions combined and -- logically speaking -- a fair number of non-hurricane induced homeless are among that population.
But even if storms don't cause all the homelessness, Hurricane Katrina taught us how quickly folks can become homeless. And in the case of folks who didn't "ask for it" our response to that disaster evidenced our generosity when it comes to helping the distressed.
The work Catholic Charities is doing in Jefferson Parish isn't about victims of weather events, natural disasters, or failed civil engineering. They help all the homeless and understand that most of them didn't ask for it either. Half the second floor of the ninety year old one-time orphanage is renovated to house single people and families. Renovations will begin soon on the other half of the floor to accommodate even more. The management staff were warm and welcoming, the physical upgrades bright and inviting, and the shelter managed to do the one thing most others don't achieve; they kept families intact regardless of gender or age.
All of this -- not to mention the day shelters, job training, food bank, head start programs and other outreach going on in Orleans Parish -- would have set the Archdiocese apart as models in the "homeless business" even if we hadn't visited Café Hope.
But we did.
And the story of Café Hope is about understanding the root causes of homelessness and dedicating the resources that will make a difference.
Because of the potential ice storm, we'd parked the night before at a Louisiana State Park. My very first thought when I learned we were semi-stranded was that we were trapped in a region known for gastronomical ecstasy. Boy was I wrong. The stretch of Route 90 in Westwego where we stayed had to have the worst food options in all the Bayou.
That was until we got to Café Hope. Located on the floor below the shelter is this magnificent restaurant. I had pecan encrusted catfish and easily the finest bread pudding I've ever eaten. The only difference between the food at Café Hope and what I might have eaten in the French Quarter was that my food was prepared and served to me by disadvantaged young people in a program to help them avoid homelessness.
Luis Arocha, the executive director of the program explained his take on the kids in his program, "Most of my life I lived with my head in the sand. I had no idea. What these kids need most is the opportunity to succeed, an opportunity to finish something." Café Hope pairs each kid with a mentor and gives them just that chance. An adult who cares what happens to them, on-the-job training to build skill sets and confidence, and job placement when they've completed the program are levies Café Hope builds against a rising tide of homelessness.
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