DDD fulltime homeless outreach worker Katie Wharton has been honored by Unity of Greater New Orleans with the Excellent Service to the Chronically Homeless Award.
Last year, Wharton and the DDD Public Safety Rangers served a total of 944 people, housing 119 of them, connecting 16 people to jobs, and 25 more to treatment. The team served the remaining people by helping them get IDs or birth certificates, doing laundry, or accessing healthcare.
“It’s constant,” said longtime Public Safety Ranger Melvin White. Like the district’s other rangers, White works closely with Wharton, an outreach worker for the DDD who connects homeless people to social services and housing. Her position through the agency Travelers Aid is funded by the DDD as an effort to help people who frequent the Central Business District.
In many ways, New Orleans is not unlike most other cities that grapple with homeless populations. Past surveys have shown that, typically, more than 85 percent of New Orleans homeless are from the metro area. Wharton still meets people who were stably housed until Hurricane Katrina but have been homeless off and on since the disaster, often due to climbing housing prices and displaced family members.
But unlike other cities, New Orleans sees a rise in homelessness just before Lent. A surge of out-of-towners who come to town around Mardi Gras end up becoming homeless on New Orleans streets. For those people, homelessness can often be resolved quickly, with a bus ticket back home.
Wharton relies upon the rangers, who are out throughout the early morning and late evening hours and cover more territory, to verify that someone is homeless and to estimate how long they’ve been homeless. That verification is required by agencies who house disabled homeless people.
For Wharton and the rangers, the first step is forging relationships. So, they find ways to befriend even recluses who run from them and sleep in the shadows of doorways. They get to know people with untreated mental illness or those who have fallen into addiction or alcoholism.
For his part, White keeps a pair of new sweat socks in his pocket —a sought-after commodity for homeless people who are on their feet for much of the day. He also carries a first-aid kit to help patch up the frequent bruises, cuts and spider bites that are part of being homeless. Beyond her work connecting people to caseworkers and services, Wharton totes clean clothes and rain ponchos.
The two also look for opportunities to be helpful. When one often elusive woman complained to Wharton that she wasn’t being allowed to vote that day, Wharton went with her to City Hall to iron out the matter — and, along the way, earned the woman’s trust.
Recently, the team celebrated as they housed a bipolar-schizophrenic woman with a master’s degree who had been homeless in the CBD for quite awhile. Little by little, she began allowing them to make the doctor’s and caseworker appointments that eventually led to her own apartment. “It took about a year,” Wharton said. “But she got into her own place.”