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Stories from the Field: Providing Services at the Low Barrier Shelter

Addressing the needs of those experiencing homelessness is a critical activity on a daily basis. Serving this population becomes even more urgent in emergency situations like extreme weather, disasters, and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so takes dedicated and compassionate individuals like one Tulane University School of Social Work student performing her field placement with the City of New Orleans Shelter and Engagement Center

As a full-time Tulane University School of Law employee and part-time online Master of Social Work student, Alexandria Andara started her field placement last May. Field education as a social work intern with agencies and organizations support their knowledge gained in the classroom, and each MSW candidate must complete over 900 hours of field work as part of the program. 

Alexandria is in her sixth semester of the program and the fourth semester of her internship at the shelter. “It has been a privilege to see and experience first-hand how a low barrier shelter serves the community,” she says.

Opened in September 2018, the low barrier shelter is the first of its kind in Greater New Orleans. “This model has proven successful in other cities, and it is interesting to see how it has developed in New Orleans,” Alexandria says. “This shelter is a place that creates a low barrier environment by removing many of the pre-conditions that emergency shelters have in place. Many shelters require a small fee, or they offer less access throughout the day.”

The low barrier shelter in New Orleans is a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week facility and has a total of 100 beds. On the first year anniversary, the shelter had transitioned 132 guests to housing and provided shelter for 362 individuals. “As of this month, we have transitioned 236 guests since the shelter’s opening,” Alexandria says.

Before the pandemic, the shelter would receive countless phone calls of individuals asking to stay there. “Due to the efforts of the city officials and the fact that many homeless people have been housed at local hotels, the volume of calls has been much lower,” Alexandria says. “Thankfully, this means less people are living on the streets and are in a safer place during this pandemic.” 

Alexandria’s role at the shelter as an MSW intern is to support the social workers and supervisors on-site. This includes managing intakes and housing plans. “The majority of my time consists of following up with the guests to ensure they are on track towards their housing goals,” Alexandria says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting individuals in transitioning to permanent housing became difficult as businesses began to shut down. Those that could work were losing income and stability. “At first, it felt like some had to start from the beginning. All that work that they put in to get back on track was gone in a matter of days,” Alexandria says. “Yet, even in the face of uncertainty, the environment in the shelter has been a positive one. Everyone is staying as upbeat as they can and focused on what they can change.”

Alexandria is thankful to be a part of Tulane’s MSW program and specifically placed at this agency for her internship, especially during this time of crisis the world is facing. “This has allowed me to learn how to navigate during a crisis,” Alexandria says. “The staff at the shelter are extraordinary. I have learned much from them and enjoy being a support to them.”

The experiences Alexandria has had at the shelter have helped her in other ways. She is extending what she is observing and learning to other people and areas that have essential needs. She has supported her church’s effort (Victory Church in Metairie, LA) as a partner of the Second Harvest Food Bank to distribute food and diapers twice a week. “We have seen an overwhelming response as there are more people in need than ever before,” Alexandria says. “It is easy to only think of the stereotypical homeless person, but what I have seen at the shelter is that the people there are just like you and me. From one day to the next, you never know what your life may look like, and if my time at the shelter can be a positive experience for one person then it is all worth it.”