Does North Louisiana have the heart to prevent an organization for the homeless from becoming homeless itself?

By Edwin Crayton/Opinion

Can you guarantee that no one in your family will ever lose a job and become homeless? Can you guarantee that no person in your family will ever have an addiction to drugs or alcohol that causes them to become homeless? Can you guarantee that none of Louisiana’s many fierce storms, tornadoes, or hurricanes will hit your area and cause hundreds to lose their homes? Can you guarantee that no one in your city will ever suffer a mental health crisis or lose the ability to reason and care for themselves, driving them on to the streets? If you answered yes to all of those questions, then I would not be surprised if you felt your town does not need a facility to help the homeless. However, I would also observe that you are out of touch with reality.

The reality is, homelessness is a national problem that has spread from the big cities to the smaller, rural areas. There are many causes for the rise in homelessness. In July of this year, German Lopez wrote about the increase in homelessness nationwide, in a story in the online newsletter for The New York Times. Lopez cited a lack of affordable housing as the number one reason for the increase in homelessness. According to him, the lack of affordable housing in our nation’s cities has resulted in a fierce competition for places to live and that has forced many people on to the street. But the reasons for homelessness vary. Some lose a job or find themselves on the street due to an abrupt eviction. Many people are homeless because they have mental illness and cannot make rational decisions. Many others have addictions—they’re bottoming out. There are all types of homeless people and that implies we need to consider all types of solutions. Usually, when most of us think of the homeless, we picture people huddling in dark, cold alleys in cities like Shreveport, New Orleans or Baton Rouge. But actually, it is becoming a problem in much smaller towns, even in the tiny Bible Belt towns of North Louisiana. In the tiny hamlet of Natchitoches, Helen Obioha, Director of the Natchitoches Coalition on Homelessness understands this. Her organization’s goal is to help the homeless among us navigate from the street into a life off the street and into their own apartments or homes. Yes, it’s as tricky as it sounds. But the soft-spoken Ms. Obioha has many skills needed to accomplish the task. For starters, she has the ability to manage and motivate people, because for 22 years she was a manager of the Wayne County Community College District Bookstore (Northwest campus) in Michigan. A Louisiana native, she returned to Louisiana and discovered that homelessness is an issue here, just as it is the north. So, with the help of volunteers a few years ago, she set out to do something about the problem. Now, ironically, the coalition itself needs a home. In short, an organization for the homeless is well, homeless.

The coalition is relatively new and in the building stage of growth. Right now, it is trying to find a landlord who will donate or lease a building or space at a reasonable rate. The organization needs a physical space to coordinate its activities. Here is what I mean. Every fourth Thursday at 4pm, it feeds anyone who needs a meal through its “Share A Meal” dinner. In 2022, it served an impressive 668 meals. Most recently, it was doing this inside a church in Natchitoches, but that arrangement has ended. For Thanksgiving, the coalition fed people at a concession stand on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Although most of those diners were adults, many children also got a hot Thanksgiving dinner for free. I attended that event and they served quite a crowd. There were no leftovers in that Thanksgiving dinner. (The coalition has good cooks.) Two precious little boys were quite happy to receive a dinner box. Later I wondered if that was because there was very little food in their home. On a day to day basis, the coalition helps provide temporary shelter by helping people in need of shelter get rooms for the night. Having a permanent space will bring all these activities together in a more seamless way. It will also give the administrators of the coalition and the board meeting spaces to administer and run the programs and services. Having a physical space can really push an organization forward. Could you imagine the post office without the “office” part?

Of course, helping the homeless has its downsides. For instance, Ms. Obioha is refreshingly realistic about what citizens or the organization can and cannot do about homelessness. She acknowledged that you cannot help people who are not ready to make changes. She also made it clear that the coalition does not want to create dependency. It wants to help people become self-sufficient. Therefore, clients are required to do the work needed to get off the street. She pointed out that there are two main types of homeless situations. The first is one in which a person needs to be in a shelter for a day or a week. The second is a situation in which someone needs transitional housing and they may need help with temporary housing for more than a week or two, and help is given depending on their particular needs. The facility she is seeking to create will take care of both types of clients. I asked her what the facility will be called. She said it would be called the West Haven Shelter.

Donors can give by going to Go Fund Me, or donate through Cash App $NATCHCOH. They can also make out a check payable to the Natchitoches Coalition on Homelessness and sending it care of 222 Melrose Avenue, Natchitoches, Louisiana 71457. Those wanting to help can get more information by calling the coalition at 318-753-0010. The coalition is overseen by an eight-person board and two advisors. It is a 501 c3 charity.

Violent crime, drugs and pollution are all problems which started in America’s big cities, but migrated to the nation’s smaller towns. Now homelessness has done likewise. Some powerful citizens in smaller towns might feel threatened by the thought of a shelter in their town, believing that it will attract homeless people to their area. But they don’t realize, the homeless are already in their town and have been for a while. Now that homelessness is a small-town issue too, doesn’t it make sense to have a facility that can serve people in need? Especially when one of those people might turn out to be someone you might know and love.

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

–Jesus, criticizing people for not helping those in need (The Book of Matthew25:44-46)