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Fed Up 

Some neighbors say they can't stomach the Ozanam Inn's meals program any longer. Ozanam Inn staff members say demands for their services are only increasing.

Several half-sandwiches and a few dozen breadcrusts litter this stretch of sidewalk on Camp Street. They weren't here an hour ago.

To neighbor Cassandra Sharpe, these sandwich fragments can mean only one thing -- mealtime at the Ozanam Inn, the shelter located just down the street at 843 Camp. Sharpe can immediately recite the Ozanam's service times: 6 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Over the course of a day, according to Ozanam data, the shelter feeds at least 500 to 600 people. It sleeps 96 men at night.

Sharpe also knows the shelter's menu well -- from seeing it on the ground. "It's like a calling card, that sandwich -- white bread with mayonnaise that sticks to the sidewalk." She leans over to put a few pieces in the trash can. Nearly every day, she says, she is forced to walk her sidewalk and back alley dealing with trash -- sandwiches, general litter, fecal matter. Two years ago on Valentine's Day, she says, she broke her left foot while trying to tidy up out here.

Sharpe is a real-estate broker who since 1994 has lived just off of Camp on Julia Street in a Georgian townhome -- one in a row of 13 such houses built in 1832 and resurrected a century and a half later. Along with some of her neighbors, she has become an outspoken critic of the Ozanam, which she calls "an institution operating out of the dark ages."

Her opinions are no secret. Over the past several years, she's sent thousands of faxes and email messages on the topic -- to Ozanam staff and board members, the New Orleans Police Department, the mayor, City Council, and state Department of Health and Hospitals. Because the Ozanam is connected to the St. Vincent DePaul Society, a Catholic organization, Sharpe, has for several months, sent daily email to Archbishop Alfred Hughes.

Archdiocese of New Orleans spokesperson Father William Maestri says that there has been a series of ongoing discussions about the Ozanam situation and that at this point it would be "imprudent and inappropriate" to comment any further.

Ozanam administrator Biaggio DiGiovanni, known to most around the shelter as "G," can't imagine that the archbishop will halt the Ozanam's work. "I'm not a gambler," says DiGiovanni, "but that is one bet I'll take." In fact, he says, when Easter Sunday rolls around this year, the archbishop is likely to spend a good part of the day at the Ozanam, just like he did last Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This particular standoff happens to be taking place near Camp and Julia streets, but it's not unique to New Orleans. It is rooted in the way America's city centers have changed over the past few decades.

During that time, most skid rows in this country gentrified. Warehouse districts moved away from forklifts and toward high-end lofts. Urban development agencies courted museums and galleries for the lesser-developed margins of downtowns in an effort to create cultural districts that would attract upscale visitors. Soon, people investing sweat and money into these areas looked around and asked why the rest of the neighborhood hadn't changed yet.

Since the 1980s, however, the number of homeless people began to increase substantially. The Urban Institute recently estimated that, each year, between 5 and 10 percent of all poor people will experience homelessness. Shelters today find themselves facing both a growing demand for services and neighborhood opposition to their very presence.

A few years ago, the American Bar Association's Commission on Homeless and Poverty addressed the situation with a 92-page handbook for lawyers and advocates titled NIMBY (Not in My Backyard). Last year, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless surveyed 57 cities and found that none reported sufficient shelter beds. That's due largely to "NIMBYism," says Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the coalition. "For the past decade," Stoops says, "it's been virtually impossible to open up a new shelter without fierce opposition from businesses and residents."

Similar neighborhood sentiments have stalled the 200-bed expansion planned for the New Orleans Mission, located at 1130 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., about 10 blocks from the Ozanam. The additional beds -- announced in August as a done deal, complete with a press conference by Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson -- have been stalled by neighbors who don't want to be the "solution" for other areas' NIMBY battles. King Wells, chairman of the Central City Partnership, says that his group is supportive of the Mission but not this expansion. "We don't want other areas to shift their homeless to us," he says.

Wells, along with Renee Gill Pratt, councilperson for the district that includes both the Mission and the Ozanam, agrees that the ultimate goal is the implementation of the citywide plan that came out of the mayor's task force a few years ago. That plan includes the construction of a 24-hour shelter.

Such long-range solutions are vital, but they do little to address day-to-day complaints about the Ozanam, say critics like Sharpe and her neighbor Kevin Kelly. "We're against the Oz attracting people to the neighborhood and then throwing them out onto the street," Kelly says. "These people don't lack food. They lack housing and a job. Free food allows them to spend their money in bars and casinos."

In 1995, Kelly purchased the former Orleans Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. The hotel had in the 1930s been listed as one of the finest in town, but it fell into disrepair in the 1950s and became a boarding house. Kelly renovated the place and, in 1999, moved in.

Kelly counts himself among the harshest critics of the Ozanam and its clientele. He wants everyone who receives meals at the Oz to be registered and run through a police database. "Criminals -- deviants -- are attracted to the Oz because there are no questions asked," he says. "They don't register them or check them out. They feed anyone who comes to their doors."

"I don't think we're doing anything to change these lives," Kelly says. "I think that the Oz has a motivation to keep these people on the street to help their fundraising."

The first part of an Oct. 31, 2002, email message from Cassandra Sharpe:

"Archbishop Hughes:

"This morning after I was returning from an appointment with a client around noon we were driving by the entrance to my alley on Camp Street and witnessed a man brushing his teeth in front of the 25,000 cars that pass down Camp Street daily. This happens to be two doors or two buildings from the entrance of the Ozanam Inn.

"If there was room at the Ozanam Inn and if there are bathrooms there, why did he not go there to brush his teeth? I will answer that question. There are bathrooms inside the Ozanam Inn, but the people who visit there are not allowed to use the bathrooms. This is in the name of security for the Ozanam Inn. So this man is brought into our neighborhood with no real place to go or do the things that he should do in private.

"Yet another example of bringing people into our neighborhood and not having a facility that can handle their needs."

Clarence Adams, assistant administrator at the Ozanam, has heard the laundry list of complaints. He's seen the email messages. None of those things are true, he says.

The Ozanam cooperates completely with police, Adams says, and they do reach out to newcomers. The regular schedule of mealtime visitors includes pro bono attorneys (second Tuesday of the month), Veterans Administration representatives and medical staff (every week), and Protestant and Catholic deacons (every night).

The criticism has reached a ridiculous level, Adams says. Now, he says, any time Sharpe finds any sort of a mess, she demands that the Ozanam clean it up. If she sees a passed-out drunk, she wants the Ozanam to haul him inside the shelter.

"It got to the point where we couldn't do enough," he says. "They know that we have restrooms available. They know this. But they're not interested in the facts."

"The Ozanam Inn has been here since 1955," says Adams. "Now we're being told, 'Things have changed. I'm here now. You need to leave.' We should move where? To a place where the neighbors don't have as much money?"

The Ozanam Inn will not turn away anyone who's hungry, Adams emphasizes. But that doesn't mean that they're happy to see new faces nearly every day. "At this point," he says, "I think we are the first stop for a lot of people." This population includes the newly homeless, patients discharged from a hospital or treatment center, foster kids who have "aged out" of the system, and people coming off a stay at Orleans Parish Prison.

That situation won't change, says Adams, until institutions begin discharge-planning: arranging lodging, ongoing medical care and prescriptions for people at risk for homelessness. The Bush administration recently began requiring discharge planning from institutions that receive federal funding, and Charity Hospital recently launched a program to track some homeless patients. Few other local institutions are doing anything beyond releasing people onto the street, says Adams.

In the end, Adams argues, the shelter's presence solves more problems for its neighbors than it causes. "As long as the Ozanam Inn is here, they know that that's 96 people who are not sleeping in their doorways, not relieving themselves in their alley."

A block from her house, Cassandra Sharpe sees a figure in a hooded winter coat. The man is walking with an unsteady gait along the 700 block of St. Charles Avenue.

"M.C.!" Sharpe yells. The figure turns, revealing a face cut deep with wrinkles. M.C.-- Maynard C. Brown -- is 74 years old. He's known Cassandra Sharpe for about six years, he guesses.

Brown is a fixture in this neighborhood. These days he either sits in a bar all night or sleeps in a doorway. He arrived here close to 31 years ago when this strip of St. Charles was nothing but bar rooms. "If you had one drink at every bar up one side, you couldn't make it down the other side," he says. There were also 22 garages in the immediate area, which meant plenty of work for Brown, a mechanic. He lived in flophouses, boarding houses and single-room-occupancy hotels, where one night would run him 50, 75 cents, maybe a dollar. For a while, he resided in the Orleans Hotel boarding house, where Kevin Kelly now lives.

"The whole place was nothing but skid row, ma'am," he says. The building where Sharpe lives now was once a boarding house, with a sign above the front door that read "See Ed for Beds," he says with a wheezy laugh. "Charles Bronson, Hard Times, 1974. They made that movie in Cassandra's house," he says. "Freddie the barber cut his hair."

If Brown is hungry, he'll occasionally head over to the Ozanam for a bite. He's been doing that for about five or six years now. "But I'm not a bum, ma'am," he says. "I've worked all my life. I just overhauled an engine."

Sharpe is OK with Brown. It reminds her of when she lived in the French Quarter for 20 years, from 1974 to 1994. "I knew the button lady, Ruthie the Duck Lady, I knew all of them," she says. "It's more transient here. It's a very aggressive group of people."

Urban social-policy expert Michael Dear has, since the 1970s, studied, analyzed and even mediated NIMBY conflicts. Dear, currently the director of the Southern California Studies Center at the University of Southern California, says that over the years he has seen an array of neighbors -- including the mentally ill, ex-offenders and substance abusers -- perceived as "undesirable." That attitude is partly a function of unfamiliarity, he says, noting that only a few decades ago, some of the least-desirable neighbors were facilities for homeless people and AIDS patients. As more people knew others with AIDS, opposition to those facilities subsided.

The homeless, however, remain near the bottom of the list. "The majority of us don't get homeless on an ongoing basis," Dear says. "We can't relate."

Dear emphasizes that neighbors often have very legitimate concerns. "If, for instance, somebody is going to make a mess, they are obliged to pick it up," he says.

But Dear doesn't agree with the oft-heard criticism from residents that their area is oversaturated, that it's become "a ghetto of social services." For homeless people who don't have the ability to travel distances easily, one area with many services is beneficial, he says. Soup kitchens and meal programs also allow homeless people a chance to help each other, says Dear. "It's like going to the office cafeteria or the water cooler," he says. "It's a networking device."

Dear suggests that experts from a university or other trusted institution could occupy the middle ground, collecting data that showed the extent of the problem, assessing needs, and suggesting ways that all parties could work together to get themselves out of the current standoff.

There are happy endings, he says. Without a mediator, however, the prospects are dim. "I've seen people argue themselves into the dust," he says.

In front of the Ozanam, men form a rapidly growing line. They rub their hands together and stomp their feet. Each is waiting for one of the 30 extra cots that the Ozanam assembles on "freeze nights" like this one. The shelter waits until that night's residents have finished dinner, then sets up the cots in their dining room and opens its doors to the additional visitors.

Sharpe looks over and shakes her head. "You don't help people and you don't help a neighborhood by lining people up like this," she says.

It's 6:30 p.m. Some of the men in the middle of the line have been standing here for an hour and a half. Nero Myers, 39, has been homeless since June 29 of last year, when he was released from Hunt prison where he served seven years for dealing crack. He says he's been living right and he has skills -- he can paint, do plumbing and landscaping. But with his record, he's found it tough to get a job in this sagging market. He dreaded his release for this very reason, he says.

"The closer I got to my parole date, I kept doing things to stay there longer," he says. "Really I didn't want to get out."

Jeffrey, who doesn't want his last name used, is standing in front of Myers. He says he lost his place in September due to a crack problem that he's now licked. He had entered the military right out of high school and served there nine years before an injury sent him home to civilian life. Suddenly, he was faced with paying bills, he says, on a very tight income -- "because jobs in New Orleans don't pay good."

The pension he was waiting on still hasn't arrived. Jeffrey is trying to save up enough money for an apartment solely from his kitchen job in a prominent Bourbon Street restaurant. "It's rough," he says. "Trying to keep my job and be productive and get proper rest."

James, 52, is sitting in front of a tall can of Budweiser in the front section of the St. Charles Bar and Pool Room, a long space only wide enough to accommodate a long polished wooden bar and a line of bar stools. He's wearing painter's paints, a red wool stocking cap and a red zip-up sweatshirt over a gray turtleneck -- the uniform of a laborer who has worked in this neighborhood on and off for 20 years. James, who didn't want his last name used, has his own apartment now. But he has slipped into homelessness a few times during those years and so feels as though he can see both sides of this squabble.

He pushes back his beer, lights a Doral cigarette, thinks for a few minutes, then begins. "These are people who, for economic reasons, were able to move into this community. They see things differently," he says. "If I were one of them, I probably would find myself thinking, 'These [homeless] people could destroy this for me.'"

But on the other hand, he says, "The Oz didn't just pop up. They're dealing with the social problems that I may, perhaps, discuss at my dinner table. The question becomes, 'Are they responsible for the actions of everyone they're trying to help? And where does their responsibility end and mine begin?'"

James kneads his chin and puffs on his cigarette. "It's really complex," he says finally, snuffing out the cigarette. "It's going to take a lot of heads to work this out."

click to enlarge TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
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