By Greg Fischer
Charles Napoleon is one of many people who roam day and night near LSU’s north gate, on W. Chimes St. He goes by “Nap.” Nap is homeless.
Last night, temperatures were in the low 40’s. Standing thin, at about five-nine, Nap sports a dark scruffy beard mingled with grays, blue jeans, tan hiking boots, a black skullcap, and a blue fleece pullover underneath a black-leather jacket. He speaks slowly. “Last night . . . I got wet,” Nap says. Nearing 50-years-old, Nap offers the listener insights such as these:
“Plenty people just see a black man.”
“I look inside of someone.” Naps eyes move away. “Even if I’m not looking directly at you, I’m still able to see you.”
“If someone says to me, ‘I’m fine!’ and then walks off when I ask them how they are doing, I tell them ‘God bless and have a good day.’”
Three weeks ago Nap asks for $30 dollars, saying that the money will provide a shelter for him for two weeks and begin rehabilitation for him. He also asks for a ride to the corner of Tennessee St. and E. Polk St., where he says he needs to go.
Later, a police officer working the desk at Baton Rouge city police, Highland Rd. precinct, tightly built, in uniform, with a flattop haircut and a retainer in his mouth gets permission to speak with me about E. Polk St. At first he refuses to talk at all. His nametag reads Hunter.
“You sure the shelter was on East Polk St.?” Officer Hunter asks. “There’s no shelter on East Polk Street.”
Nap after all, offers a car wash in exchange for the $30 dollars. The offer is foolishly declined.
“These streets are hard,” Nap says on the drive to E. Polk St. “Some of these people, man . . . Shooting . . . And stabbing . . . And fighting . . . It’s hard to make it on these streets.”
It’s one o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday in this old neighborhood, and a group of eight or nine youths are gathered in front of one house. “How you think my hands got like this?” Nap asks. “I use them to defend myself.”
A manager at Reginelli’s, on W. Chimes St., says Nap was hired to wash dishes, but he was let go because he had to leave early enough in the evening to supposedly check into a shelter. Nap’s feet are afflicted with gangrene, too, so it’s painful for him to stand for long periods of time. Nap says he walks to Earl K. Long hospital for a treatment every month.
“All this tissue in my hands is also decaying,” Nap says, while demonstrating by pulling up a worn thumbnail without any sensation. Nap’s hands are puffy like big, dark clouds, with dry open sores.
“Lotion doesn’t do any good,” Nap says. “I’ve used all kind of lotion . . . I don’t usually show people this,” Nap includes, before revealing an awful rash underneath his right bicep.
The week after meeting Nap and giving him money, he appears at work and asks for another $10 dollars—this time for a shave. In return, Nap offers a pocket knife. But the knife is sketchy, decorated with a confederate flag and four confederate generals, and is wrapped in a fast food napkin, and is refused.
During the past two weeks, Nap has come around two or three more times. A week ago, he asks for a bag of potato chips. That night, Nap claims he’s from Alexandria and he has been in Baton Rouge for only three months. Later, his ID reveals a Tennessee St. address, in Baton Rouge.
Just yesterday, Nap enters the Reginelli’s bar, soliciting and thus disrupting the manager. “I found this last night in Raising Cane’s parking lot, sterling silver. Don’t you have a girlfriend?” he asks. He holds a woman’s ring.
“I don’t like pawn shops,” Nap says. “You give them something, but when you want it back, they want more money than they gave you in the first place.” Nap understands interest well.
According to Officer Hunter, students should think before giving their money to someone. “[The police] don’t bother with the homeless unless they are knocking on someone’s car or something like that,” Officer Hunter says. “We have better things to do.”
“My father says that he’ll feed [the homeless] but that’s it,” Officer Hunter says. “My advice is to help them out, but they’ll ask for whatever they can get. Most of them just want a little crack, or alcohol, so just use precaution.” Officer Hunter says finally that his favorite is the guy outside of the Varsity Theater with the guitar. He adds that guy has permission to be there.
Fr. Cary at Christ the King Catholic Church says that the LSU based church doesn’t deal directly with the poor, too often. “We try to refer them to a parish in their zip code,” Fr. Cary says.
“There are centers such as the Christian Outreach Center, the Convention Center, and the Ecumenical Center that offer help. Also, ever since Hurricane Katrina, St. Joseph Cathedral downtown hands out MRE’s.” Father Cary says. He also makes a suggestion to check out the Bishop Ott shelter.
Moving on, in terms of classifying someone on the street, (some people call them poor, some beggars, some bums, some say homeless) what is politically correct? The definition of “stigma” in the Oxford-English dictionary is: A mark made upon the skin by burning with a hot iron (rarely, by cutting or pricking), as a token of infamy or subjection; a brand.
The U.S. Census Bureau uses the word “poor” to describe those living below the poverty line, so maybe that is the term to use. Nevertheless, there are definitely real ways to helping the poor. And guess what? Real options don’t cost a thing, either.
The U.S. census bureau does not measure homelessness by zip code. In fact, the best they have to offer is a “special report” from 1999 for the 2000 census that focuses on the issue of poverty.
According to the census report, 19.6 percent of Louisiana residents are measured to live in poverty, down from 23.6 percent in 1989. Of the four regions in the country, 40 percent of the nation’s people living in poverty live in the South, but the largest number of people in America also lives in the South. Notably, the city of New Orleans ranked seventh, nationally, of the top ten cities with the highest poverty rate at 27.9 percent.
Moreover, the median annual income for Louisiana households is $37, 943. The national poverty line for a household of two people under 65 is just above $11,000. Maybe it’s not as bad as they say then.
In Baton Rouge, there are 19 shelters total, according to the LA Department of Education website. Some of these are geared to help people with specific disorders, such as mental disorders, alcoholism, and substance abuse problems. Some are geared towards rehabilitating specific genders, youth, and people who have been living with abuse.
Alvin Smith has been the executive director of a program called Youth Oasis since 2004. “Youth Oasis,” Smith says, “is referred to by the state (child protection, Juvenile Justice, and Mental Health), for Runaway Homeless Youth, or R-H-Y.”
The former name of the Youth Oasis shelter is Kaleidoscope, located at 260 S. Acadian Thruway. Cool name. Kaleidoscope was founded in 1997. Its maximum capacity is 15 people, ages 10-17. There are two wings in the building. One wing has ten beds, for females, while the males have five beds in their wing.
“Our census varies between five and eleven [youths] on any given day,” Smith Says. “We can have three discharges and four admissions on any given day. We currently have 6 youth in the shelter, but we could be at 10 by the middle of the afternoon.”
Additionally, Smith explains that there is no charge to stay. “We have a federal grant that pays for the RHY youth,” Smith says. “The state youth are paid by the state. We never charge either state or RHY youth to reside at Youth Oasis.”
“Kaleidoscope is licensed as an emergency shelter, which means that the maximum that anyone could reside here is 105 days,” Smith says. “106 days and beyond designates a ‘group home,’ which we are not.”
Smith adds that Youth Oasis, if at full capacity, will actually provide a place to sleep for someone until a space is made available for them at the shelter.
“We make a significant difference in the lives of the youth we serve, at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. And for many of the youth whom we serve, the only other alternative is the street,” Smith says. “We make it a point to develop supportive relationships with the youth, so that the youth knows that wherever they are, they have people at Youth Oasis who care about them.”
For adults, perhaps the largest shelter in Baton Rouge is the Bishop Ott Day Center/Night Shelter, located at both 1623 Convention St. and 2550 Plank Rd.
Bishop Ott is a Catholic charity that sleeps a total of 56 single men and 36 single women with children over the age of five. Carl Taylor, assessment counselor and night shelter supervisor, works at Bishop Ott going on 12 years. Taylor is tall with a serious grimace, but with a warm heart.
On a tour of the shelter, the time is three o’clock, so the dormitory style quarters are empty. Check-in begins at four. A group of men are gathered outside, waiting to be let in.
The walls at Bishop Ott are painted gray and navy blue. The furniture in the activities room does not match—some of it is old—but the TV is a new widescreen, with cable. The room also contains three computers equipped with the Web.
“It’s nice! Bishop Ott is nice, man,” exclaims Chimes St. sketch artist, John Babun.
Everything is in fact, impeccably clean, from the floor, to the beds (each one made up with blankets containing the Clinton-Massie Falcons emblem), to the bathroom facility. Bishop Ott provides all the toiletries one man could possibly need. Taylor says the shelter provides soap, towels, toothbrushes, razors, etc. to guests. A sign reads “No talking after eight in the men’s dormitory.”
Showers are individualized, too. The best part is that it is all free.
“We have a pharmacy,” Taylor says, “a kitchen, a dining hall, eight thrift stores, three shelters, a day program, a dental office, health care, a pro bono law firm . . . free, all free.”
“Cases vary, people may need a couple nights until they can catch the bus to the next city or state,” Taylor says. The Bishop Ott location on Convention St. is almost located right around the corner from the Florida Blvd. Greyhound Bus Station.
“There are people who are down on their luck, people who have been burned out, waiting to get their funds in order so they can get into another place, people who have chemical issues, meaning that every penny they get is going to go toward that, which means they can’t get a place to stay,” Taylor says. “We have everything we need here to be functional.”
People can check into Bishop Ott from four o’clock to eight o’clock in the evening. There is no drug or alcohol screening. “To me,” Taylor says, “it is futile to do that. Most clients or guests obviously have some other problems.”
Taylor says that the shelter actually feeds lunch to as many as three to four-hundred people each day, seven days a week, with the help of high school Beta clubs, Scouts, and families.
According to Taylor, unlike Bishop Ott, the Salvation Army Transient Lodge, located at 7361 Airline Highway, charges $7.50 per night and doesn’t allow you to store any of your belongings during the day. Taylor says it can be hard for guys who are finding work at labor halls, which hire today and pay today, to have to carry luggage around with them.
Friday, Nap does not show up to get the address to Bishop Ott from me at work, like he said he would. Instead, he showed up at my doorstep yesterday for it. I told him that’s about all I can do for him. Later that night, he was still on Chimes St.
“You can pass by someone on the street and think he needs a place to stay, and he doesn’t think that way,” Taylor says. “The will to do what you need to do is the only thing we don’t give.”
**Below is a narrative slideshow of the places and faces in this article**