NEW ORLEANS - Every time it gets dangerously cold, you’ll see it: a beige van, with the word “Unity” on the side, searching the streets of New Orleans.
“We are going to be trying to pick up homeless individuals to bring them to shelter so they are out of the elements,” said Brandi Girard, assistant director of Unity Welcome Home.
Unity, an organization dedicated to helping the homeless, sends people like Girard and Laniker Hunter-Davis out when the city of New Orleans activates its freeze plan for the homeless.
The plan goes into effect when the temperature dips to 35 or below with the wind chill index.
Girard and Hunter-Davis’ first stop was the I-10 overpass at Claiborne Avenue. They found about half a dozen people sleeping under the bridge, all of whom declined a ride to a shelter, for various reasons.
One man said he did not want to be separated from his wife.
Girard gave those under the bridge blankets and sleeping bags to help keep them warm.
“If we don't do it, who will?” asked Girard. “So I think it's our job as a community to reach out to those who can't physically get there on their own, or who may not know about the resources.”
Girard remarked that there are normally many more people sleeping under the overpass, but during a cold night, many likely already found shelter indoors elsewhere.
Shelters like the Ozaman Inn were ready to house more people than usual. Organizers set out 39 extra cots in the dining room Wednesday night, anticipating overflow.
“We might put a few people on the floor, on mattresses or something if we have to,” said Ted Lewis, special services manager at the Ozanam Inn.
With a city freeze plan in effect, shelters have fewer limits on how many people can be allowed inside. They must also waive any fees. Many shelters fill up fast.
"If it wouldn't be for me staying here tonight I would be out in the cold, and that's terrible to think about because it's supposed to get real cold," said Kerry Thompson, an Ozanam Inn client
"You're just so cold that you can't go to sleep," said James Summers, an Ozanam Inn client.
Meanwhile, Girard continues to search the streets to make sure everyone who wants shelter gets it.
"I just feel like it's my call, it's my duty, as a citizen, as a concerned person in the community."