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Mission Not Impossible 

The New Orleans Mission doubles its capacity, thanks to a few hundred additional beds moved from Orleans Parish Prison.

The sun was shining bright as Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson and NOPD Captain Louis Dabdoub walked into the park in the center of Jackson Square last Monday. "Captain Dabdoub and myself put the whole thing together," said Clarkson in a press conference, "and other people just came to the table."

The topic of the day was the New Orleans Mission at 1130 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., which soon will be doubling its capacity, from 200 to 400 beds. Also, within the next six months, Louisiana State University would be increasing the mental-health and medical services that it already provides to the Mission on weekends.

None of this can happen without money, of course. Which is why New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn has come forward, to spearhead fundraising for both additional costs at the expanded Mission -- and, eventually, a larger facility. Bennett Powell, current board president for the Mission, was also part of last week's announcement. He says that the New Orleans Police Foundation is also helping to access funds.

The most immediate impact comes courtesy of Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti, who will within the next few weeks move 300 beds into the Mission. The facility currently sleeps 200: 100 in actual beds and 100 more on special sleeping mats. When the new beds arrive, 100 will take the place of the mats; the other 200 will be able to accommodate new guests.

Homeless advocates across town roundly applauded the proposal. "I think it's very much what we were encouraging the administration to do," says Peg Reese, executive director of Unity for the Homeless, which coordinates the local response to homelessness and distributes money from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development to more than 60 agencies in New Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

Praise also came from Martha Hegel, who defends homeless people in civil litigation through the New Orleans Legal Aid Clinic. "This proposal today represents a victory for Unity for the Homeless," says Kegel. "We've been actively asking for a long time for an additional 200 beds in a permanent homeless shelter -- as opposed to a substandard tent. But in the past, donors hadn't come forward."

Most of the new developments were already in the works before the proposed "tent city for the homeless" erupted in controversy last month. The dormitory space was already there; it was completed last November just as the Mission's private funding was drying up in the wake of allegations of Red Cross improprieties, says Powell. Suddenly, the Mission found itself with no money for furnishings -- until now. "It was like God did it," says Powell about the new arrangement.

The Mission had also been in discussions with LSU about an unemployed-homeless clinic, but was forced to suspend these discussions earlier this year for funding reasons. Now, the clinic idea has been renewed. Its location will likely start out as a double-wide trailer until more permanent arrangements can be made.

Foti will also be providing materials and inmate labor for the renovation of two other rooms. A storage room that now holds the Mission's clothing will, within a few months, house 30 to 60 homeless women with children. The Mission currently is a male-only facility. Another separate facility -- the Women's Refuge at the New Orleans Mission -- has a successful rehab program for women, but children can't accompany them there.

Another storage room will hold some convalescent beds, for inmates recovering from surgery and extensive medical treatment. The sheriff and his men will also rehab the Mission's day room, "to give those guys more reason to hang out there instead of in the Quarter," says Powell.

For her part, Clarkson wants to clarify that the arrangement announced last week was basically what she'd had in mind the whole time. "I used the word 'temporary,' I didn't use the word 'tent,''' says Clarkson in an interview. "When Captain Dabdoub said 'tent city,' he meant that if we had to have a place for overload, for one night or something, we might do a tent or something."

More details on the exact finances are not available, Clarkson says. "We haven't divulged any money yet," she explains, saying she can only reveal that money has been raised from the private sector and that Shinn is also contributing. There's also a long list of in-kind contributors and volunteers. "It's a wonderful list. It's just to die for," says Clarkson. "I'm so excited. It's everything I'd ever hoped to do."

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