Tawana's appearance doesn't betray her upbringing. Dressed in dark blue scrubs for her job at Tulane University Medical Center, she looks like the young professional she is. She speaks with straightforward simplicity and confidence, telling her story with the practiced remove of someone who has put the past in its place.
Tawana grew up in Central City. Her mother died when she was 2, and her father was incarcerated for the bulk of her childhood. She says she was sexually and physically abused throughout her youth and was familiar with the drug culture.
When she gave birth to a son in 2007, Tawana promised herself she would give her child the parent she never had. After her father was released from prison, Tawana and her baby lived with him and his new wife. Tawana says she heard her father training her son to call him "Dad" and his wife "Mom" and became worried the couple planned to take her son as their own. So Tawana packed a week's worth of clothing and diapers and left.
She found herself with her son in the Walmart parking lot in Harahan, having missed the last bus, out of options. An elderly couple found her crying and came over. She remembered from an outreach program that there was a place that helped young people in crisis; the couple brought her to Covenant House, a shelter and childcare agency on North Rampart Street just outside the French Quarter. Tawana never got the couple's names.
"I wish I knew who they were, just to thank them," she says.
TAWANA HAS COME A LONG WAY SINCE 2007. SHE'S MOVED WITH HER SON into a house in eastern New Orleans and has enrolled her child in a private school as well as Brazilian martial arts classes. She's trying to keep him busy — she's seen what happens to kids who aren't.
While the second half of her story may be uncommon, the first half is not. New Orleans is home to uncounted numbers of teenagers in unstable living conditions, and the number of runaway and homeless youths that Covenant House has seen at its doorstep has been growing since Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans — and it has spiked in recent months. In March, the agency housed 35. This month, that number rose to 75.
Covenant House officials say they're adding capacity as fast as they can, but the need is quickly outstripping their capability. For Jim Kelly, who has served as executive director of the Covenant House New Orleans chapter for 25 years, the post-Katrina picture is clear: The street is getting crowded, and it's getting deadly.
"There's going to be ebbs and flows, but the lethality of the street and the extent of mental illness in our kids, those are issues," he says. "And the sheer number of kids. Twenty years ago, 70 percent of our kids came from Louisiana. Post-Katrina, 75 percent of our kids come from the greater New Orleans area."
A look at metro homicide reports begins to elucidate the picture. Homicide victims and perpetrators fall right into the age range that Covenant House targets: 78 percent of victims are younger than 28.
"Those kids are under 20 years old in the French Quarter, guaranteed, just shooting down the middle of the street," says Oliver Thomas, former City Council president and current director of advocacy and community relations for Covenant House. "Last week we had a 15- and a 16-year-old."
DESPITE A DECLINE FROM PREVIOUS YEARS, NEW ORLEANS STILL HAD THE highest murder rate in the country in 2009, with 52 murders per 100,000 citizens. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made reducing the homicide rate a priority for his administration, but any kind of enforcement strategy will be measured against the police department's record using of excessive force.
But murders in New Orleans don't look like those in other violent cities throughout the country. According to James Carter, the city's criminal justice coordinator, gang- and drug-related murders, while prevalent, don't make up the bulk of violent crime in the city. Homicides tend to take the form of lesser conflicts gone deadly.
Carter, a former attorney and city councilman who began his new post two months ago, says the city is trying to approach reducing the homicide rate as a public health problem as well as a police problem. He's been meeting with Covenant House and other programs for dealing with at-risk youth in the city, taking stock not only of troubled areas and crime hot spots, but the resources those communities have to offer.
"We still have kids that are coming or returning home from Hurricane Katrina, we have kids that have been living in abandoned homes," Carter says. "So this type of intelligence is useful in determining strategies to help these populations (and) to wrap our minds around these programs from a public health perspective." "We're looking very closely at models that help in conflict resolution as opposed to some other areas that are less tactical and more public health models."
The city is looking at other metropolitan areas like Chicago, New York and Newark, N.J. for examples of holistic crime prevention, but Carter says the particular nature of violence divorced from gang activity in New Orleans requires a different mindset than what others have tried before. In early July, his and Landrieu's efforts paid off when the city received $4.2 million in grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies designed to fund innovation in municipal government.
THE NEW NEW ORLEANS NARRATIVE IS THAT OF A RESURGENT CITY: TALENTED twentysomethings are moving to town, tech companies are setting up shop and entrepreneurism is flourishing. But for the populations who can't invest in tech startups or get jobs as software engineers, the situation is very different. Rising housing costs have displaced more and more families, and the recession only exacerbated an already bleak economic picture.
In Louisiana, 24 percent of children are born into poverty — 10 percent extreme poverty. In the 2006 Kids Count Data Book, Louisiana ranked 49th in childhood welfare. The stories of New Orleans' poor aren't often told (except on the police scanner), but people like Thomas and Kelly think the economic recovery of New Orleans isn't viable if it doesn't improve the lives of the city's most underserved citizens.
The most basic rule at Covenant House is simple: Show up, any time, in any condition, and the program will take you. A longer stay requires a deeper commitment, but Covenant House isn't a strict shelter, it's "three hots and a cot," in aid lingo. Staffers offer counseling, career advice, medical services, transportation to jobs, daycare and other services. Most clients stay an average of 30 days. The ultimate goal is to get them set up with a job and stable housing, and Covenant House succeeded in the latter goal in 48 percent of cases in 2010.
Clients run the gamut: Some are substance abusers, some are involved in prostitution and one plays Chopin on the piano in the Covenant House chapel. About half are male and half female, 74 percent are black, 24 percent white and 2 percent other ethnicities. In recent years, the emotional stressors associated with Katrina and the New Orleans diaspora caused by the flooding have resulted in another spike — in mental illness, according to Kelly.
Covenant House is far from alone in its mission to provide alternatives for at-risk youth. It has ties to organizations like New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth, which offers literacy and GED classes as well as counseling and job preparation, and Cafe Reconcile, which trains young people for jobs in the food service industry. Covenant House officials say they've also found a receptive partner in the Landrieu administration, and hope to work with the city on expanded housing vouchers and hiring incentives for the people who need jobs the most.
"Let's incorporate kids into our growth and economic development plan for how the city moves forward," Thomas says. "At what point do we need to then say we are going to protect our kids from themselves?"
Now a social worker, Tawana, 21, stands as one of the program's most striking success stories. She started as an intern with Recovery School District and Interlink Health, but Karen DeSalvo, now a city health commissioner and vice dean for community affairs and health policy at Tulane University School of Medicine, quickly recognized her talents and helped her become a social services project assistant at Tulane. Tawana's past gives her a unique ability to understand her cases, but sometimes the stories hit close to home.
She still remembers that night in the Walmart parking lot when she was lost and alone, with only enough food to last a week. Not everyone in her position, or in her son's position, makes it out. Tawana tries to help them do that at her job, and with Gals, a faith-based "sisterhood" she helps run that offers young women and single mothers support and advice when they find themselves in a sitation like the one Tawana was in four years ago.
"I'm happy to have had to experience this," Tawana says. "Now I know that they have people that are worse off than me, that have been through worse things than me, and now I have no choice but to succeed, because there are all these people looking at me now, and I can't let them down."