Every day she was homeless, Trolean Tolliver walked six miles pushing her newborn son in a stroller.
After trying to sleep each night at the Salvation Army shelter, Tolliver would gather her older children, Envy, 6, and Christopher, 5, strap baby George in his stroller and walk three miles to the Ozanam Inn to pick up vouchers for another night at the Salvation Army, since she couldn’t afford the shelter’s fees. Then, they’d all march back.
One blistering July day in the middle of this routine, a woman approached her at the Inn. Laniker Hunter-Davis, an outreach worker for UNITY of Greater New Orleans, had seen Tolliver and the children at the Salvation Army the same morning.
Because of that meeting, Tolliver and her children now live in half a shotgun double, a three-bedroom apartment in Central City, where the older children have rooms of their own.
The Tolliver family are among 460 formerly homeless people that UNITY has housed this year. UNITY, a joint effort by 60 agencies providing housing and services to the homeless in New Orleans, is nearing its goal of providing 500 homes by the holidays.
Last week, UNITY held a community breakfast with several of its partners — Catholic Charities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development among them — to begin a drive for household goods to help furnish those apartments and half-doubles.
UNITY Executive Director Martha Kegel said donations as small “as a spoon, literally” can help solve the problem of homelessness, as they allow the organization to focus its resources on rent allocation rather than household goods such as linens, kitchenware and furniture.
Kegel said homelessness is still higher in New Orleans than it was before Hurricane Katrina. A typical pre-Katrina night would find 2,000 homeless. In 2007, the number was 11,600.
While it’s down to 2,400 today, Kegel said there’s still work to be done, especially for women and families.
Since the concept of the homeless family is relatively new, there isn’t much data on its prevalence. A “point in time” count in February 2013 showed 175 homeless households with a collective 357 homeless children in New Orleans. In addition, there has been a 17 percent increase in women accessing emergency shelter services since November 2012, according to UNITY’s Homeless Information Management System.
Another major focus at UNITY is its goal of ending by 2015 the plight of New Orleans’ chronically homeless, defined as those who have severe mental or physical disabilities and live on the streets or in shelters for more than one year.
Several homeless and recently housed people spoke at the community breakfast, telling stories of sleeping under bridges, bathing at bus station sinks and sneaking into the casino to use its bathroom.
Wayne Gordon, 57, spent the past seven years without a permanent place to live. He said he’s been “in and out.”
“I don’t mean in and out of prison,” Gordon said. “I mean abandoned houses, under the bridge … everywhere.”
After leaving prison seven years ago, Gordon had trouble finding an apartment. When he was hungry and sleeping outdoors, jail sometimes seemed like a desirable alternative.
“When I was locked up, I was guaranteed a bed. I was guaranteed food,” Gordon said. “Out here, for seven years, I was turned away.”
Thanks to UNITY, Gordon now lives in a small apartment.
“We’re one of three major cities … that has made a major dent in homelessness,” said HUD public housing grant manager Elvettra Gibbs.
Formerly homeless people and their supporters at the breakfast were treated to a surprise visit from UNITY board member and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, who played “Amazing Grace” because “it’s a song of transformation, and transformation’s what we do here.”
Kegel said UNITY is on track to hit its goal, not just the short-term one of filling 500 homes, but the goal of completely ending chronic homelessness.
“We think we’re positioned to be the first American city to end chronic homelessness,” Kegel said.
“We can actually solve this problem,” Mayfield said. “That’s what keeps me so diligent.”
Kegel said it’s necessary to stretch the federal dollar. One way to do so is to solicit donations.
“There are things, if you’re sitting in your house, that you can do,” Mayfield said. “You don’t have to get out of your comfort zone to make a difference.”
“Even if it’s sparing an old place setting,” added Kegel.
The corner of the room was filled with bags, brimming with donated household goods. It’s the type of support that helped many local people get through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We understand how important it is to have a home, because we all lost our homes, at least for a little while,” Kegel said.
When Tolliver thinks back to her own battle with homelessness, what she remembers is the kindness of Hunter-Davis, the bus passes Hunter-Davis would share with her. She thinks of the house she now calls her own.
“I realized there was still some good people out there,” Tolliver said.
It’s a fact Mayfield thinks isn’t discussed enough. People are willing to help, if they know how.
“It’s the Great American Story, the homeless advocacy story. It just isn’t told enough.”