'Homeless’ letters appeal for understanding

Discipleship program, New Orleans Mission helping Willie Lemon with self-sufficiency

For Willie Lemon, the streets called early. One of 12 children, Lemon grew up in Central City and Marrero. At 45, he’s struggled with unemployment, homelessness, and alcohol and drug abuse.

Now he’s living at the New Orleans Mission, working, attending counseling and enrolled in a yearlong “discipleship” program that is equipping him to live a sober, self-sufficient life.

“I was out in the wilderness, with no place to go,” said Lemon, 45, a burly former shipyard worker. “Now I’m taking it a day at a time, seeing what God has for me.”

About 200 people usually spend the night at the Mission, 1130 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., director David Bottner said. But each of them has his or her own unique story. Many grew up in New Orleans, like Lemon, who was partly raised by an aunt in a house just a block from the mission’s main building. Many had jobs and homes before illness, addiction or unemployment landed them on the streets.

Officials at the mission recently invited residents to write open letters in a campaign called “Sincerely, Homeless,” intended to help the public see the homeless as individuals with unique circumstances and not just as stereotypes.

So far, about 40 residents have spoken out in the letter-writing campaign, said Reid Stone with the mission.

“We wanted people to put into their own words how quickly you can become homeless,” Stone said. “All it takes is getting behind in your bills and you can be homeless. A lot of our people are working homeless.”

“Even though I still struggle in some areas, I came a long way from where I used to be,” Lemon wrote in his letter. “My life became unmanageable, and I had nowhere to turn to but the New Orleans Mission.”

A resident who gives her name as Janis writes: “I was recently released from prison. I needed a safe place to go where there are no drugs and alcohol ... the mission opened their doors and their hearts to me and have been an essential tool toward my spiritual growth.”

The letters have been scanned and posted on a Pinterest page that can be seen via the Mission’s website, http://www.neworleansmission.org.

The mission is a nonprofit that operates entirely on donations, even turning away help offered by the city in July when former directors announced it was out of funds and threatened to shut it down, Reid said.

Instead, the board of directors hired Bottner, a onetime automotive marketing specialist and former director of Compassion Outreach in St. Tammany Parish, who agreed to work for $1 a year.

The mission is staffed by volunteers who are mostly unpaid, but many live in a communal house on the property, Bottner said.

Still, the shelter needs financial help to continue serving 18,000 meals a day, offering GED and job-training classes, laundry, beds and case management for hundreds of people every month.

The letters are a reminder that each person who walks in the door is worth saving.

“Every one is a personal letter to the people of New Orleans, saying this is my story, this is what happened,” Bottner said. To the mission, “recovery” means not just recovering from addiction. Not all homeless people have a substance-abuse problem. “The recovery to us is a recovery from bad choices,” Bottner said.

Many people are closer to homelessness than they realize, he said.

“If you look at the average American, they are a job loss away from becoming homeless,” he said. “If you live your life paycheck to paycheck with a mound of debt, the job is the only thing that separates you from being homeless. Lose your job, and you’ll find out. We take that job for granted, but no job will always be there.”

Recovery is a chance to learn how to make better choices, he said.

“We want them to change their life, so that they never come back to the mission — except to volunteer.”