A temporary but centrally located “low-barrier” shelter that would provide protection from the elements and access to public services for homeless people in New Orleans could be open as soon as October, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said last week.
The concept is based on a similar model in San Antonio, and the city and the Downtown Development District have pledged $1 million each toward its creation, Cantrell told the Faubourg Avart Neighborhood Association.
City officials are negotiating with a property owner for a temporary location for the shelter, but Cantrell said she could not disclose it until those conversations are complete.
The low-barrier shelter would provide homeless people with a place to sleep outdoors, with partially covered areas for protection from the weather, Cantrell said. Representatives of city housing and health services agencies would be available for those who want their services, but those services would not be forced on people who are not ready for them, Cantrell said.
In San Antonio, the 23-acre, $101 million Haven for Hope center opened in 2010 and is considered a model for low-barrier housing. Made up of outdoor areas and renovated warehouses, it can house 1,011 homeless people each night and offers a wide array of social services.
Low-barrier shelters are designed to have few restrictions, with the hope of attracting the chronically homeless and others who refuse to leave the streets.
Some homeless people simply aren’t comfortable living indoors, and this will allow them to stay outside safely “in an environment where care surrounds them,” Cantrell said. “It’s not warehousing people. It’s giving people a quality, safe environment. If you still want to be outside, you can be, but you’ll be protected from the elements.”
Cantrell’s office said Friday that officials have not yet determined how many people the city’s shelter would hold or what restrictions it might have.
She said the shelter must be in a central part of the city where homeless people tend to congregate, not in an outlying area such as New Orleans East, where some officials considered putting it.
City Hall sources said the proposed temporary site is not in a residential area.
Cantrell said her interest in the homeless issue stems partly from her own personal experience. Her stepfather spent years homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, so separated from society that his family had to drive around looking for him when they wanted to check on him.
“It wasn’t that he didn’t have family that cared about him,” Cantrell said. “It’s where he was at that time.”
After 15 years of that life, however, her stepfather returned to “normal” society, and today no one would ever realize that he spent so long on the streets, Cantrell said. Her hope is that the low-barrier shelter will help people in a similar situation get the help they need.
Members of the audience had a number of questions about the project, though no one expressed opposition to it. Its funding will come in part from the city, as part of the package of services that New Orleans already provides to the homeless. Because of the health services offered, the expansion of federal medical programs in Louisiana will help, and once the project shows some success, private donations are expected to follow.
Asked how the city will convince homeless people to go the shelter, Cantrell said that in some cases, the police may take them there if they are found sleeping in public. But if the shelter is created correctly, she said, it will be a place they want to go to, because it will satisfy their needs in a way that existing services have not been able to.
The shelter is not intended to replace any programs already in place, Cantrell said. Indoor shelters, transitional housing and other programs will all continue to serve homeless people who are ready for them. The low-barrier shelter is intended for people who have not taken advantage of those types of services, for whatever reasons.
“They’re going to be treated with respect,” Cantrell said. “If I had to stay there, we could stay there and be safe. Right now you have families on the street that have to be broken up because we don’t have shelters for families.”