It was 16 minutes until the talent show, and nobody had signed up.
Erica Clovis went from person to person, flashing a smile as she begged the reticent people at the One Stop Homeless Services Center to share their talents with others.
She managed to convince only seven people, but those who often spend their Friday afternoons at the center didn’t leave disappointed. They saw James Brown dance moves, heard a tribute poem to Maya Angelou and listened to several full-throated gospel songs that had people clapping and singing along.
The 100 or so people who attended on Friday said a prayer to express their gratitude for the One Stop Homeless Services Center, a cheery building where they can receive medical and legal help, along with specialized attention to help them find housing.
The event took place almost three years to the day since the opening of the center, which sits on North 17th Street between Convention Street and North Boulevard.
It fills an important role in coordinating efforts to meet the needs of the homeless.
The Louisiana Housing Corporation estimates 665 people are currently homeless in Louisiana’s capital city, and officials with the One Stop Homeless Services Center say about 130 of them come to the center each day seeking help or services.
Statewide, 4,606 people are homeless, according to the Louisiana Housing Corporation, which helps low- to moderate-income citizens meet their housing needs through the allocation of federal and state money. But Louisiana’s homeless population is declining, down from the 12,482 people in the state who reported they were homeless four years ago.
For those who frequent One Stop, the experience is as much about seeing friends as it is about receiving services.
“Days and days go by, and our folks don’t have a lot of people to talk to them,” said Matthew Hayes, the Volunteers of America program director for housing and homeless services. “It gives our folks an opportunity to explain their situation, and it also is good for people to hear the stories. It changes the way we approach homelessness.”
At the talent show, Clovis performed first. She crossed her arms and closed her eyes, belting out “His eye is on the sparrow.” Kenneth Corner then danced James Brown-style, with the signature “Godfather of Soul” split on the ground, and then Lucy Augustus recited a tribute poem to Maya Angelou.
But Lenzie Sams’ song had friends and workers alike humming along. He tapped an old, white sneaker and snapped his fingers.
“I’ve got a mind to live for Jesus,” he sang, low and quiet at first.
His voice grew louder, more passionate, hitting the deep low notes and then stretching up to the treble clef.
“You can’t stop me, you might as well join me,” he rumbled.
The people surrounding him clapped along, chanting their own choruses of “Amen!” and “Yes, Lord!” and “Get ’em.”
He won the talent show and chose a black sweatshirt as his prize.
Sams, 50, and Clovis, 35, are more fortunate than many of their peers. He said he stays with a friend in Sherwood Forest, and she said she stays at her mother’s house near One Stop.
But others head across the street at night for a place to sleep, either at the Bishop Ott Shelter for Men or the Bishop Ott Shelter for Women and Children.
The goal of One Stop, according to executive director Randy Nichols, is to coordinate services so everyone across the city isn’t providing the same kind of assistance to homeless people. The One Stop Homeless Services Center is run by Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, which has more than 30 partners. Among them are the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and Volunteers of America, who run a drop-in center at One Stop.
The 130 to 140 people a day who visit One Stop go through a process: They are assessed for the cause of their homelessness and for any programs they might be referred to for help.
“Every homeless person is a bit of a detective problem,” Nichols said.
Some hurdles stand in the way. A lack of resources is one, like having too few case workers and too few housing subsidies, according to Nichols.
Another problem is untreated mental health ailments in the homeless population. The mental health problems can have a chain effect, Nichols said, as many homeless people turn to substance abuse because they are coping with undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses.
Nichols is a former Methodist minister, and his bookshelves are brimming with titles like the Gnostic Gospels and The Parables. He believes people do not want to be homeless, and that it’s better for society, both monetarily and morally, to house people rather than allowing them to live on the street.
“Homeless people are very much the same as us,” he said. “They want the same things.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gives money to Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless every year for projects, like specific outreach to runaway youth or HIV patients.
This year, Nichols has set his sights on a project that would rehouse chronically homeless veterans. St. Vincent de Paul Director Michael Acaldo also is trying to raise $850,000 to nearly double the size of its women’s and children’s shelter, which has 36 beds and eight cribs.
A lack of shelter space is another problem in Baton Rouge, Nichols said. No matter how many times he has to tell people that shelters are full for the night, he said, he never gets used to it.
One Stop was closing for the day when the talent show finished, and everyone filed out, drinking punch and eating cake. Some shared cigarettes and told stories about how they learned to sing and dance.
Sams said he has been singing “I’ve got a mind to live for Jesus” for nearly two decades. He said he was bound to a wheelchair when he was 33 and had to learn how to walk again because of rheumatoid arthritis.
He asked God to give him some of his strength back, and that turned out to be enough to sing. He has since regained the ability to walk. And once he starts singing, he can’t stop.
“When I get wound up in it, the spirit gets all over me,” he said.
The show was over, but Clovis wasn’t finished egging him on.
“I knew you had it in you,” she said.