Completing a home

As the trio of men walked inside the small warehouse, the men stood still but their eyes began to roam, looking around at the household goods resting on tables or in boxes.

Eventually, Gregory Tobias, Gilbert Lewis and Ray, who did not want to give his last name, began to walk around, selecting various items they knew they would need to help furnish their new homes. And whether one of them picked up an egg cooker, a small trash can or a frying pan, all three asked over and over again “Do you think I could have this?”

“Yes, of course you can,” replied Shea Riley, a VISTA worker who helps throughout the week at a warehouse operated by UNITY of Greater New Orleans. “Select whatever you think you might need to furnish your new homes.”

“I was homeless for five years,” said Tobias, 40, and a native of New Orleans. “I have a place to live now and a chance to find work too. But I don’t have much for the house yet, so I hope I can find a few things here.”

Collaborating with more than 60 nonprofit agencies in the metropolitan area, UNITY of Greater New Orleans works to provide housing and various services to the homeless. And approximately four years ago, UNITY opened a small warehouse in the Mid-City area of New Orleans to provide a place where newly housed men and women can go to select basic household items.

In the past year, the UNITY warehouse has seen 82 people volunteer their time, assisted 422 newly housed people with caseworkers from 26 agencies, and collected $54,712 in donations.

“You have to remember that these people were homeless and don’t have very much at all,” said Ali James, director of development for UNITY. “The majority of those we are able to find housing for move in with pretty much what they have on their backs. Each person needs those essential items which make a house a home such as pots, pans, laundry detergent, dishes, furniture brooms and clothes hangers.”

Riley can be found five days a week at the UNITY warehouse, located at 506 N. St. Patrick St., New Orleans. She said her focus is to help increase donations and attract more volunteers.

“I make phone calls all the time to a lot of places such as restaurants, hotels, high schools and universities to ask for help,” Riley said. “For example, I will call a restaurant and ask if they would consider donating dishes, glasses, utensils, pots or pans they no longer use. Or I will call a hotel and ask for the small toiletries placed in guest rooms such as soaps, shampoos and lotions.

“I will take whatever I know we can use. I see every day how these items can change a person’s life. And I will use all the volunteers here that I can get too to help gather donations or to help out here at the warehouse.”

Riley also puts together “starter kits.” Packed in a plastic bin, box or bag, there is a bedding set, bath towels, glasses or cups, plates or bowls, silverware for two, a coffeepot and a bag of coffee. And if available, the kit also includes a blanket or bedspread, a bed pad or bed skirt and a laundry bag.

The toiletry kit contains three small tubes of toothpaste, shaving supplies, deodorant, soap, shampoo and lotion. Facial or toilet tissue and a toothbrush are included when available.

In order to provide these items, donations are needed.

“We did get a donation recently of 60 twin and double beds, but for the basic essentials, we are very bare right now,” James said. “We need the true basics of what anyone would need when they move into a new place. In addition to the items we place in the starter kits, we also need donations of pots, pans, brooms, clothes hangers and furniture.

“Some may think dropping off some pots and pans or maybe boxes of toothpaste, toothbrushes or soap is a small donation. But you have to know that you are really helping. You are ending someone’s homelessness when you donate to the UNITY warehouse.”

Ray quietly walked around a small table with several difference pieces of glassware on top. He picked up a decanter and admired its design.

“This is so beautiful and when I look at this, its beauty makes me feel good,” Ray said. “I’d like to have beautiful things again.”

Fifty years old and homeless for seven years, Ray, who has a college degree in hotel and restaurant management, said he has been “broken down emotionally.”

“In one year, my wife died of cancer, I lost my all my pets and then I lost my job,” he said. “I have been broken down emotionally in every way. But coming here today to the UNITY warehouse and working with my caseworker, I am starting to feel hope again. I can’t be weak any longer — I know I have to go on.”

Keishone Sylvester is a caseworker with New Day Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. She is working with Ray, Tobias and Gilbert Lewis.

“Part of my job is to help them get their lives back on track,” Sylvester said. “And the UNITY warehouse is a great place for them to start doing just that as they select items to furnish their new homes.”

Lewis, 53, was homeless for three years. The New Orleans native said he was grateful to have a place like the UNITY warehouse.

“I need a few things to help my new place look nice,” said Lewis, holding a small, ceramic figurine of rabbits. “There are so many people helping me and that means a lot. And this year, I think the holidays are finally going to be really good.”

The UNITY warehouse is open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and by appointment on Mondays and Fridays.

To make a donation or for more information, call the warehouse at (504) 483-9300 or call the UNITY office at (504) 821-4496.

Eva Barkoff is a contributing writer. She can be reached at