Anthony Thomas’ insulin floated in a chest of melted ice on one of the hottest days of the summer. He had spent the day before lying on a cot in a tin shed, unable to move and too weak to stand, he said.
“Where I’m at, it’s a little hotter in there,” said Thomas of the tin shed. “If it’s 100 degrees outside, it feels like it’s about 140 in there.”
For the last two years, Thomas, 39, has been living in the storage space on Oak Street, with a tin roof that heats the room to unbearable temperatures. He has two powered fans, but his electricity comes from a building next door. It sometimes cuts out and leaves him with no circulating air. In addition to the insulin, Thomas takes several other medications to manage congestive heart failure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas’ heart condition puts him at an escalated risk for fatal heat stroke.
Thomas is one of approximately 553 people living on the street, in cars, abandoned homes and makeshift shelters in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, according to UNITY of Greater New Orleans. With heat indexes as high as 120 degrees, being unhoused with no access to air conditioning, suitable drinking water or a shower, is a question of life and death.
But finding housing, while surviving the elements may be an insurmountable task.
“My body just feels weak”
Thomas attended Sophie B. Wright High School in the late 90s. He played football and snare drums. He was raised with a love of food and began working in restaurants, eventually cooking in businesses across the city. Thomas’ grandmother also had diabetes, and he recalls rubbing her feet to help with the pain. He speaks of his family, his grandmother and his 16-year-old son with reverence and pride.
Thomas first became homeless nearly three years ago, after the end of a 16-year relationship in which he had stable housing in the Carrollton area. After it ended, he found himself sleeping on friends’ couches. Shortly after, he went into cardiac arrest and later suffered a diabetic coma. His health prevented him from going back to work.
“Honestly, I can’t work under these conditions,” Thomas said.“The heat won’t allow me to perform correctly…My body just feels weak, tired a lot of times.”
For the last two years, Thomas has lived mostly in Carrollton—in strangers’ backyards, behind a restaurant, and in the basement of an occupied home, until he was found and told to leave.
Finally, two years ago, a shop owner on Oak Street let Thomas live in the storage space on the side of her building. He made room for himself among bags of clothes, stacked furniture and mementos. He said the storage shed is also home to mice, and a possum that keeps him awake at night.
Living with two chronic illnesses in this space has presented additional challenges.
Thomas has two coolers that he fills with ice when he can get some. Without it, he said, his insulin turns a “foggy” color from being stored in the hot room.
Water is also hard to come by. Thomas used to use a faucet from an adjacent building, but it’s now covered. Another building next door has a faucet where he gets water to wash with when he can.
Getting water to drink is another challenge. Thomas keeps track of which cafes and shops are welcoming to him, and might allow him to ask for a cup of water or to use the restroom.
“I try to treat everybody equal. But you just don’t get that back, you know. And that’s what hurts,” Thomas said.
Walking down Oak street late last Thursday morning, the temperature was scorching, with infrequent shade and so few trees to dispel the heat.
Thomas often nods and says good morning to passersby on Oak. “They look past you like you’re invisible. I look in the mirror sometimes just to make sure I’m still there,” he said. The walk to Carrollton left Thomas depleted and tired, noting pains in his feet from the swelling.
On his way to St. Andrews Episcopal Parish House, a city designated cooling center, he passed a corner on Oak street where he said a man named James, who was known in the community and by the staff at St. Andrews, died on the sidewalk three weeks ago. Thomas remembers that James “was in the sun on the ground for a minute.”
“It’s sad because he was on the ground, foaming from the mouth. People literally were passing him up,” Thomas said.
The path to housing
Angela Owczarek is the director of programs at Travelers Aid Society of Greater New Orleans, an organization that works to connect people living on the street with resources for food, permanent housing and employment. Owczarek says their team has noticed a significant rise in deaths of their clients, which they believe are due to this summer’s extreme heat.
“We have had a very significant amount of clients pass away this summer who were living outside,” Owczarek said. “Several of these deaths may have been complicated by other conditions but we do believe several of them would not have happened at the exact time that they did if not for the literally life-threatening heat.”
Some of Traveler’s clients, Owczarek said, were already far in the housing process and waiting to be placed when they died.
Thomas has been trying to get permanent housing over the last two years. He was living briefly at a shelter 18 months ago, when he first came into contact with Travelers Aid, who opened a case for him. However, Thomas said his belongings were stolen at the shelter. He left abruptly one night and lost contact with the outreach worker. At one point, Thomas says his health care provider at AbsoluteCare, placed him in a hotel temporarily—a case by case respite option that is occasionally provided for particularly ill patients, according to Amanda Mandolini, resource specialist at AbsoluteCare.
“I started gaining weight. It was beautiful. … Everything was better. … It was lovely,” Thomas said.
After a month in a hotel, Thomas says he ended up back on the street.
With so many barriers to navigate, staying in contact with outreach workers is often the best way to get on the path to housing, said Martha Kegel.
Kegel is the executive director at UNITY, a non-profit that leads 63 other organizations in supporting people who live on the streets of New Orleans. Through their partnership, Kegel says they are currently housing 3500 people.
“There’s a whole army of people working on different parts of this,” Kegel said.
This Spring, UNITY was awarded a $15M grant from the Department of Housing and Human Development which Kegel says should remove significant barriers to reducing homelessness, particularly for those living with disabilities.
“With the new grant, that’s enough resources to house 420 new people who are on the street right now,” said Kegel. “That’s a major bump up all at one time.”
Kegel says they hope to house all 420 people within the first year of the grant, which goes into effect this fall.
“Before the pandemic it was less than a month and now it’s about twice that… It used to take us less than a month from the time that somebody’s paperwork so that we…had all the documentation that HUD requires us, to the time that that person was actually able to get the key to their apartment,” said Kegel.
HUD generally requires a person to be “chronically unhoused” or to have proof of history of living on the street before they can get on a list, Owczarek said, placing the onus on the unhoused to keep a record of their living situation, or stay in contact with a worker. However, this new grant should make that requirement less relevant, said Kegel, and make housing more accessible for people like Thomas living with disabilities on the street.
Last week, Thomas walked the length down Oak Street towards the shed. He was eager to tidy his belongings. Two outreach workers from UNITY were on their way around the back alley to knock on his door.
The workers were dressed in fluorescent shirts. They walked in under the tin roof and introduced themselves. They pointed to Thomas’ medications, where he had his insulin in a plastic cup in the heat, having run out of ice several days before. One drew out a stack of paper, an intake form, and invited him to finish filling them out in an air-conditioned van.
“I just pray that things get better,” Thomas said. “Because I’m getting tired of living like this.”
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