By Frank Michael McCormack
Southeast Louisiana never sleeps.
It’s march is heard in the gentle early morning stomp of the 610 near my house and the steady beat of pile drivers, smelled in the earthy scent of fresh roasted Folgers coffee near the Industrial Canal, felt in the rumble of drawbridges and the boom of music clubs, and seen in the silent, towering, starry cruise ship making its way downriver through the dark, South Plaquemines night.
Southeast Louisiana never sleeps.
My street never sleeps either. Late at night, while most other humans are asleep, I can sit on my stoop and see the real kings of the block on the prowl. The cats are everywhere. And in the morning, the only evidence of their activity is their paw prints on my car.
Southeast Louisiana never sleeps, but I certainly do. And the last few frigid nights, I’ve slept well under several lil’ ol’ lady blankets that, together with my heater, keep the cold at bay.
But while I forget the cold Southeast Louisiana night as soon as I crawl into bed, many in our community have no warm retreat in which to seek shelter. They are the thousands of men, women and children in the New Orleans area who spend their nights on the streets.
Homelessness on the rise
Unity of Greater New Orleans, an organization that seeks to provide housing and services for the homeless in the Crescent City, estimates that, on any given night, close to 19,000 people in the metropolitan area are homeless. Today’s homeless population is close to double what it was before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, even though overall population numbers have shrunk.
They sleep under bridges, on benches and stoops, on the river batture and in houses still gutted from Katrina’s floodwaters. In fact, this past week the New Orleans Fire Department fought a 3-alarm fire in a gutted house on Terpsichore Street thought to have been started by homeless people struggling to keep warm. And alarmingly, many of the area’s homeless are children. Louisiana ranks near the top with regard to child homelessness in the United States.
And homeless numbers continue to rise around the metro area in this difficult economic climate.
Regaining a heart for ‘the least of these’
But there’s another trend I’ve discovered of late that’s equally as alarming, if only on a personal level: Too often, my concern for the homeless and, in Jesus’ words, “the least of these” is closely tied to the thermometer. When the temperature drops, the city opens emergency shelters, fires in abandoned buildings make the news and I feel a “burden” for them. Whether that “burden” translates into specific action is another thing. But the rest of the year, “the least of these” become an afterthought to me. When people in need do approach me to ask for money, my knee-jerk response tends to be “Sorry, I don’t have any cash,” whether that’s the truth or not.
And that’s particularly disturbing to me because, at least for a brief moment of my life, I counted myself one of “the least of these.” Having grown up in the church, my experience was that, more often than not, those in need were outside and they needed what those inside had. But Katrina turned that upside down.
After Katrina inundated our apartment, Jennifer and I nomaded from place to place for a few weeks until we settled in Chattanooga. Without a home, without a job, without many clothes or friends nearby and sick with depression, Jennifer and I were met there with homes, jobs, clothes (OK, a few regrettable knitted sweaters), new friends and medicine for the soul.
In my stint as one of “the least of these,” I found some of the sweetest care from Nemo, a 70-year-old fellow “Katrina victim,” as he would say. Looking back, it’s apparent that we were Jesus to one another without really knowing it, to borrow from Matthew 25:40.
One would think that, having walked that road myself, I’d have more active compassion for others in similar situations. But too often, that’s not the case.
Up from inaction
There are some simple ways to make meeting the needs of “the least of these” a regular part of my day. I can:
Carry fast food gifts cards. Given the prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among many homeless people, a reluctance to hand out cash is, many times, understandable. Now I don’t want to be so cynical that I never give someone money when they ask. But isn’t there a way for me to responsibly and spontaneously meet a hunger need? I think one possible solution is to carry a few $5 or $10 gift cards to common fast food restaurants like McDonald’s. If I encounter someone asking for food at an intersection, I may not have time to bring them to a restaurant myself but I can easily offer a gift card.
Carry snack bags. You can carry Zip-lock bags filled with non-perishable, pre-packaged food items such as canned tuna with a pull top, granola bars and beef jerky in your car. You can include a few toiletries – bars of soap, toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste, packages of wet wipes and combs – in the bags. People who are genuinely in need will gladly accept these items.
Turn grocery sacks into sleeping mats. Part of First Baptist New Orleans’ Care Effect ministry is to transform common plastic grocery sacks into soft, water proof, durable sleeping mats. The mats are woven together using “plarn,” yarn made out of plastic bags. For instructions, go to http://www.fbno.org/ministries/the-care-effect/caremats-for-the-homeless/.
Volunteer at Baptist Friendship House. As of January 1, 2011, Baptist Friendship House will be the lone Baptist mission center operating in New Orleans. Friendship House is on both Facebook and Twitter, so it’s easy to stay up to date with volunteer opportunities.
Make some friends. People don’t have to be living on the streets to be living in need. Whether financial, physical, emotional or spiritual, the people closest to me on a daily basis have needs that oftentimes I can meet, if only I pay attention.