Hope for homeless in New Orleans

Support from faith-based disaster response organizations has been critical for homeless ministry following Hurricane Katrina.

BY WALT WILTSCHEK | NEW ORLEANS | May 12, 2009


Clients at the Rebuild Center in New Orleans use wash facilities at the homeless ministry facility.
Credit: DNN/Jim Skillington

Two clients at The Rebuild Center play checkers in the recreational space provided by the facility for the homeless in New Orleans.
Credit: DNN/Walt Wiltschek

Emma McCreight admits she had a few misgivings when she saw The Rebuild Center in New Orleans for the first time.

McCreight came to the site just north of downtown last August to begin a one-year Jesuit volunteer assignment serving the homeless. On arriving from Philadelphia, she was greeted by the backs of brown trailers sitting in a church parking lot in the shadow of a construction site. The next year suddenly didn’t seem so promising.

Then she walked in.

“Once you see inside, it’s just such a beautiful site,” McCreight said. “It’s designed for these people. They can come here, and it’s their safe haven, their environment.”

Artwork adorns the entryway and a long wall. Wooden walkways connect the various service areas around a clean, open courtyard. Vines and other greenery brighten the surrounding areas for a park-like setting.

“It’s just a great place to hang out,” said Brendan Sculley, another Jesuit volunteer at the center this year. “It really is a nice atmosphere, designed to a ‘T’ to operate the way we need to. It’s just a blessing to be able to do this.”

The staff and volunteers do their part, too, constantly aiming to provide professional, fair, Christ-like customer service to the roughly 250 people per day who sign in for one or more of the services offered: showers, laundry, meals, obtaining birth certificates or IDs, medical and legal help, a phone room, language assistance for Hispanics, and more.

“This place is really a blessing to a lot of people who are in need,” said Kenneth Stroughter, a life-long New Orleans resident who began coming to the center in the past year after he lost his job and his home. “The staff is beautiful. They always make you feel welcome with the attitude they have. I just wish more places could do that.”

The space is a partnership of three Catholic organizations: The Harry Tompson Center, which McCreight is serving with; Lantern Light; and Catholic Charities Hispanic Apostolate. The joint endeavor began in September 2007, as the agencies were seeking new ways to respond following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Our idea was to provide a seamless delivery system,” said Don Thompson, executive director of the Harry Tompson Center, whose former office was damaged by Katrina. “We had to learn how to work side-by-side with each other without stepping on each other’s toes. It’s kind of like a three-legged race; we just had to find our rhythm.”

As the partnership developed, Thompson said it has worked well. Each program retains its own budget while sharing some overhead costs at the center. “We decided we were stronger together than we were apart,” he said.

For that to happen, though, they needed the physical space. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church provided room on its property, and the $1.1 million building project came together with a variety of partners. That included Church World Service and several of its member denominations, led by the United Church of Christ, with $125,000 in donations.

When the center wanted to add a medical building, the Reformed Church in America gave another $50,000, and other denominations contributed an additional $18,000.

“The contributions have just been mind-boggling,” Thompson said. “All the people who gave have made this possible.”

Thompson would like to do a few more things, such as weatherproofing and adding climate-control to a gathering room and adding some canopies, as well as making long-term plans for the center’s future. In the meantime, though, a beautiful, inviting space still greets anyone in need from the streets of New Orleans.

“We know the people coming here leave just as homeless as when they came,” Thompson said, “but while they’re here they know they matter to people. That’s what we can give.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Some statistics from The Rebuild Center in New Orleans during its first full year of operation, from September 2007 to September 2008:

Showers taken: 20,097

Hygiene kits distributed: 9,262

People receiving medical care: 2,473

People receiving legal aid: 1,226

Minutes of phone time used: 241,600


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