By Claire Byun
A proposed low-barrier homeless shelter marketed as key to reducing the city’s homeless population is already drawing fire from school and community groups.
The new shelter, proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, is planned for 3101 Erato Street in the B.W. Cooper neighborhood. That location is just a few blocks away from two schools: Sylvanie Wlliams College Prep and now-defunct Booker T. Washington High School, which is slated to be rebuilt.
About 100 people gathered in Sylvanie Williams’ cafeteria Monday afternoon to hear more details on the proposed shelter. City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell discussed the city’s need for both a low barrier shelter and crisis management shelter, but was abruptly interrupted by a woman who stormed out of the school.
Other critics voiced their concerns about the safety of maintaining a shelter within two blocks of two schools, especially given the age of the students.
“We’re members of this community and we all have to look out for each other,” said Barbara McPhee, SWCP board member. “We have to be very careful.”
Cantrell stressed the proposed shelter must have few-to-no barriers or fees, which would service most of the homeless living on New Orleans’ streets. As of now, there are no facilities where homeless families – including children – can all stay together.
“The family will have to be split up, and that’s a barrier,” Cantrell said.
Those against the shelter worry that a shelter open to everyone – regardless of mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction – poses a threat to student safety. Many people at the meeting said the shelter’s design concentrates those in need who may pose a threat to students, including sex offenders.
Tyronne Walker, Mayor’s office representative, told the crowd it’s legal to host registered sex offenders in a shelter near schools, but some community members balked at the idea. There’s currently seven homeless facilities near schools, though none of them are low barrier, Walker said.
The city initially looked at housing homeless inside the temporary detention center on Perdido Street, but Walker said that location gives off the wrong signals.
“People who are homeless just need help, they’re not criminals,” Walker said.
City staff agreed upon the Erato Street location and plan to close on the land purchase by December, with hopes of opening in 2017. The city plans to put out construction bids soon, but many of the meeting’s attendees heard nothing about the proposed facility until last week. Several people voiced their anger at the late notice, including Ben Kleban, founder of New Orleans College Prep Charter Schools.
Kleban said he’s been trying for several weeks to initiate a public meeting with the mayor’s office regarding the new shelter, but was blown off. Only after announcing plans for his own meeting did the city respond and plan six more community input sessions.
Kleban praised the mayor’s office for scheduling round table discussions and community meet ups, while urging parents, teachers and community leaders to “stand together.”
“The people that are being affected by this decision deserve to know what is happening,” Kleban said.
Steve Boyard agreed. He came to the meeting to hear about the city’s plans regarding student safety, but added he was opposed to having a shelter within one block of two schools. The idea of a “low barrier” facility isn’t very appealing to Boyard, he said, because there’s too much uncertainty.
“We don’t know exactly who would be a part of the low barrier homeless shelter,” Boyard said.
The proposed shelter will be open to adult men and women who need a temporary place to live, complete with medical care and a sobering center. The facility will include about 100 beds with separate rooms for men and women, and cost between $500,000 and $750,000 a year to run, according to city staff.
The city and the Downtown Development District allocated $2 million to build the center. City staff have been planning a low-barrier shelter – based on those in San Antonio, T.X. – since 2011, Walker said.
The Erato Street location is pretty much a done deal, though city staff are hoping the community meetings answer any questions and relieve some concerns, Walker said.
“We’re intending to move forward with this location,” he said.
The city will hold another community meeting Tuesday at Castle Rock Baptist Church, 2323 South Galvez, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
The other five meetings are from 6 to 7:30 p.m. as follows:
- Thursday at Rosenwald Recreation Center, 1120 South Broad St.
- Oct. 11 at N.O. Emergency Medical Services, 2929 Earhart Blvd.
- Oct. 13 at N.O. Emergency Medical Services, 2929 Earhart Blvd.
- Oct. 18 at Castle Rock Baptist Church, 2323 South Galvez
- Oct. 20 at Rosenwald Recreation Center, 1120 South Broad St.