Last November, 35-year-old Phillip Pickens was arrested when St. Tammany Parish deputies found him on the Tammany Trace carrying a gun with an obliterated serial number after he had threatened a member of the volunteer force that patrols the trace.
In March, a state district judge — based on two doctors’ reports — ordered Pickens taken to Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System in Jackson for treatment.
Mental health issues have gotten a lot of attention lately in St. Tammany, with the parish purchasing the former Southeast Louisiana Hospital campus east of Mandeville and announcing plans to turn it into a behavioral health center, a “one-stop shop” for people with addiction and mental health problems.
But a common companion of mental illness has received far less notice in the parish: homelessness.
The incident that landed Pickens in jail began with a trace ranger’s attempt to roust him from an encampment under a bridge along the Tammany Trace. Such sites are common places for homeless people on the north shore to bivouac, activists say. But perhaps because it’s not as visible as it is on the south shore, or people thought it didn’t happen in the leafy suburbs north of the lake, homelessness was not thought of as a major problem in St. Tammany.
That has begun to change. Last week, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development announced its first north shore grant to help fight the structural causes of poverty, including homelessness. Other groups, including Family Promise of St. Tammany, the New Orleans Mission and the Northlake Homeless Coalition, either have been created or have established beachheads in St. Tammany.
David Bottner, the director of the New Orleans Mission, said the north shore doesn’t have close to the number of homeless people that New Orleans does. But getting a read on the number is difficult. Because the issue lurked in the shadows for so long, there are few services in the parish for those who are homeless, and few ways to get an accurate count on how many people need them.
“There are significant (numbers of) people living in encampments,” said Amanda Mills, executive director of the Northlake Homeless Coalition, a joint effort by several groups to address homelessness in a five-parish region. “We know there are some in Slidell and in Mandeville and even some in the state parks.”
But not all of the encampments have been identified. “We are still trying to get a grasp on the issue,” she said.
The extent of the problem is clearer when studying children because groups are able to use data from the school system. St. Tammany’s nearly 40,000 students include more than 1,100 who are homeless, according to Melissa Landrum, of Family Promise.
The group opened its doors in May after getting a $90,000 grant from the parish. It helps get homeless children into school and parents back on their feet, she said.
“Absolutely, (homelessness) was overlooked in St. Tammany,” Landrum said.
That sentiment was echoed by Willie Paretti, who works with homeless children in the school system, including “couch surfers” — mostly high school students who stay with friends but have no steady home.
“When I started this several years ago,” she said, “people would look at me like I had three noses: ‘Not here in my backyard; this is not happening.’ ”
But that perception has started to change.
The Northlake Homeless Coalition, which was formed in the late 1990s as a volunteer-only group, hired Mills as a full-time director in 2014. Earlier this year, the group hired an outreach coordinator tasked with going out and locating the homeless.
“There is a lot of movement in terms of recognizing and addressing it,” Mills said. Parish authorities have been supportive, especially with providing funding, she said. The parish has helped provide almost $300,000 to organizations directly trying to fight homelessness.
The issue is key for Parish President Pat Brister, who proposed making the site of the former Southeast Louisiana Hospital a mental and behavioral health campus to address issues that often arise in tandem with homelessness.
In a related move, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has donated $40,000 to the Northshore Housing Initiative, a community land trust that aids home buyers by purchasing the land on which the house sits. The land then is leased back to the buyer at a low rate, allowing many people who wouldn’t normally be able to purchase a home to do so, especially in St. Tammany Parish.
The service targets those who are teetering on the edge of homelessness, often paying high rents while working in low-paying service-sector jobs, said Ann Borne, the NHI’s executive director.
The grant will be used for operating costs, which should allow the group to expand its services, she said.
The New Orleans Mission’s Bottner said these efforts are “just beginning.” But he’s optimistic.
“If we can get aggressive enough, eliminating homelessness — that’s very difficult in New Orleans, but in St. Tammany Parish, with leadership and with the aggressive style of pursuing men and women, I think you could do that on the north shore,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.