With Mardi Gras quickly approaching, I thought it might be appropriate to post a piece I wrote last year about an experience I had with a man who come upon hard times and had reluctantly joined the class of poor unfortunates that make up New Orleans’s large homeless population. While New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has publicly trumpeted the claim that the city has ended homelessness among veterans, a simple trip into the city at night or a look at the dubious methods of measuring homelessness and the temporary nature of the housing assistance (maximum of 5 months of rental assistance) tells a different story. However, even if all of the homeless veterans in New Orleans were provided housing by government organizations or–more frequently–private charitable organizations, it would still leave behind the majority of the city’s homeless population who doesn’t have a record of military service to deem them worthy of ballyhooed public initiatives. The man I spoke to in this article was, in fact, a veteran of the US Army, so I can only hope he has benefited from the efforts to ameliorate homelessness in the Crescent City that the civilian population had a harder time benefitting from.
7 o’clock in the evening is the witching hour down in the French Quarter. A time when the touristy masses descend upon Bourbon Street like a plague of drunken frogs, with gaudy beads around their necks, neon yard glasses in their hands and hard liquor in their veins. From up close, it seemed as if the area had descended into utter bedlam, but there was in fact a definite order and method to the madness. Hype men for the bars came outside onto the stoops of their places of business and barked out drink specials and band names with the rapidity of auctioneers in attempt to differentiate themselves from the 7 other virtually identical bars on the block. All of the strip clubs sent out their best and their buxomest dancers, counting on there being truth in the old saying that men were born with two heads but can only use one at a time, to get easy money through their doors. And all of this pitching and hard-selling was going on in the middle of the in road as cars and vans had been prohibited from driving on Bourbon Street. If New York City is the city that never sleeps, then New Orleans is the city that never sobers up.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of sobering statistics and sights in New Orleans. We may be close to 9 years removed from the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, but the effects of Katrina are still being acutely felt by New Orleans residents. In the first years after Katrina, homelessness in New Orleans reached levels never before seen in a major US city,with 1 in 25 residents being forced to live without permanent housing, a rate that was 4 times larger than any other place in the country. Since then, the city has made a concerted effort to address these housing problems, reducing the amount of homelessness to the point that there are fewer than 400 more homeless residents in New Orleans today than there were when Katrina hit. This progress is to be applauded, but even after all the work that has been done, New Orleans was listed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness in 2012 as having the 2nd highest rate of homelessness in the country. During my brief visit there, I found that the homeless in The Crescent City were about as ubiquitous as Mardi Gras beads and Shrimp Etouffee.
As I walked around the Quarter, I came across a guy named Steve who was sitting against the wall of a convenience store on Royal Street, asking passers-by for help. Steve was a short guy—maybe 5′ 5” or 5′ 6”—who was overdressed for the weather in the way a person is when they only have one set of clothes and no safe place to put them besides on themselves. Well into middle age and in possession of a remarkable amount of cordiality for someone who probably hadn’t had a shower or a shave in two weeks, Steve seemed like the kind of guy who, had the ball bounced differently a couple times over the course of his life, would be leading an unremarkable middle class existence. Steve was the poster child for the damage done by the Great Recession. He greeted me with what I can only assume was his usual, disarming pitch:
“Look man,” Steve said, cupping his hands together and holding them out in front of his body.“I’m not asking for change. I got change, alright? I don’t need change. All I’m looking for is something to eat, man. I’m starving over here.”
“Sure, man. Not a problem.” I told him.
“Seriously, I’m not a bum or nothing.” Steve said, standing up from his spot against the convenience store wall. “I’m 4 years army, man—from Birmingham, Alabama— came here looking for work and ended up out here.”
“No need to explain yourself. I’ll get you something to eat.” I said.
“Thank you, man. Most people just walk on by around here like they think I’m bullshitting ‘em or something, y’know?” Steve shook his head. “This town…didn’t think it was gonna be like this when came down here, that’s for damn sure.”
“How long have you been down here?” I asked as we headed west towards Canal Street.
“I’ve only been out for 3 months or so. I came out for this job cutting steel.” Steve paused.“Well, I didn’t really know how to cut steel, but they didn’t know that and I wasn’t about to tell ‘em. I gave it everything I had at that job, but the place went under a little while after I got there. It was a family business and I liked it there. I really did, but now I been out here looking for work and there ain’t nothing here!”
“Didn’t you say you were from Birmingham?” I asked.
“Well, I’m not actually from Birmingham. Where I’m from is about 2 counties over. Y’all have parishes over here, well, we’ve got counties. I just tell people I’m from Birmingham ’cause they’ve never heard of where I’m actually from.” Steve said.
“You know where Double Springs is?” Steve asked.
“Can’t say that I do.” I told him.
“What’d I tell you?” Steve said as we turned onto Canal Street and headed north, away from one of what must be hundreds of foot massage parlors in the city. “Unless you’re from Alabama, there’s no reason you’d know where it is.”
“You stay there long?” I asked.
“Nah,” Steve said. “I just grew up there. As soon as I turned 18 I joined the Army and got the hell up out of there. That was…well, that was about twenty years ago, I guess. I just turned 40 the other day, so I got at least one foot in the grave now. I’m just…” Steve stopped and started running his hands through the place on his head where his hair should’ve been. “I just need work, man. This guy I know said they was hiring up in Cleveland, but damn that’s a long ways away. I wish to hell I knew where that guy was.”
I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t know where in the hell Steve’s guy was, so I just stayed quiet a minute before asking him where he wanted to eat.
“Lord, I don’t really care where we go, I’m just hungry.” Steve said.
“You cool with hitting up a hot dog cart?” I asked.
“A hot dog sounds good to me.” he said.
“What about McDonald’s?” I asked as we passed by some golden arches.
“Naw, man.” Steve said, clearly repulsed by the idea. “I can do most places, but I can’t do McDonald’s. I worked at one of them once and after you see what it is they actually put in the food there, you can’t eat it no more.”