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From Down-and-Out to Booting Up

November 18, 1999

Mary Ann Travis

"I was afraid to go in this neighborhood," says Terry Clark. "So I decided I was either going to have to hide from it or change it. I decided to change it." The Central City corner where Clark has directed his efforts for change is at the intersection of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and Terpsichore Street.

Clark, network administrator for Tulane's development services office, has spent thousands of hours at this street corner-usually 10 to 20 and more hours a week-since he first began his involvement serving food for community feedings in 1990. And change has come, says Clark. Here, on a block of formerly bleak and boarded-up storefronts and crack houses, sits the Living Witness Community Social Services Center, a homeless shelter for men with a history of chemical dependency.

An art gallery graces the neighborhood. Children play basketball in a new outdoor court on the site that was once a weed-infested lot. The sidewalk is trash-free. The street bustles with activity. Drug deals happen here no more. Now the same men who once hung out in abandoned houses smoking, shooting, selling or buying drugs are patrolling and cleaning up the streets.

Dressed in military-style camouflage pants and drab T-shirts, these clients of the residential, spiritually based program have committed themselves to one year of rigorous in-house discipline. The 16 men currently in the program follow a strict schedule of exercise, therapy, learning and prayer.

In addition to the daily structured learning program, the clients also informally learn to repair computer hardware and test-drive software for Clark to use in his job at Tulane. "We let them play around, then I know what kind of problems we might run into," says Clark, who helped equip a computer lab at the center. "We can then implement systems [in the Tulane development office] that have been tested. It's been fun and rewarding," says Clark. "I learn more doing this than anything. I get more out of this than they do."

Clark says the men at the center just got off track, and he wants to show them another way. The road to alcoholism and drug addiction may be the only path the clients have known, Clark surmises.

"They did it because this is the way their fathers did it or brothers or uncles. I want the guys who have finished the program to be role models. I've heard 12-year-old kids say, 'I'll just deal crack until I'm arrested, then it's three meals a day in prison.' They say there is nothing to do. I say there is something to do."

While Clark is introducing the center clients to information technology, he's also showing them that someone cares. "When I first came here, we saw drug dealing all the time," says Clark. "And if we called the police about it, they wouldn't show up for four or five hours."

John Pierre, elder of the Living Witness Ministries Church of God in Christ Church, which was established in 1981 and is the church from which the homeless shelter grew, confirms that churchgoers, who typically did not live in the neighborhood, saw drug activity right in front of the church on Sunday morning.

Pierre, who is also the center's executive director, says Clark came to the center on the recommendation of Pierre's niece, Valerie Washington, who worked with Clark at Tulane in alumni development information services. Washington had told Clark that her church had bought a computer with no monitor, and Clark offered to help. "And he's been helping ever since," says Pierre. "He is a blessing."

To launch the shelter in 1994, Clark helped write a grant proposal for funding from the New Orleans Foundation, as well as solicited funding from private citizens. Since then, he has helped secure additional funding from the City of New Orleans and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We kept seeing the same people come to the community feedings," says Clark. "We said, 'how can we help them in a more long-term way to turn around their lives.'" Now plans are afoot to increase the number of beds in the center and to provide computer time and expertise to the Orthea Castle Haley Merchants Association, which Clark also helped found.

Clark's passion for the center's work drives his recruitment of other volunteers to join him. For example, Tulane's computer information systems coordinator Gary Smith managed the center clients who were paid a stipend to assist in development services Y2K analysis. Smith, who has the A+ computer repair certification that several of the clients aspire to attain, enjoys training and working with the clients. "They are eager and willing to learn," he says. "A lot of them are prospering."

Ron Holloway, an applications specialist in Tulane's institutional advancement, is another volunteer whom Clark has recruited to work at the center. Holloway says, "These are homeless people, and Terry believes in them. In some cases, more than they believe in themselves."

Holloway spent a Saturday morning in July teaching a basic computer skills class to six center clients.

"It was wonderful," says Holloway. "They were like dry sponges soaking up good water."
 
Actually, says Holloway, "Computers are just a vehicle to help these men. Learning about computers is something to build confidence on. They have lost confidence, and computers are a way to get back to where they need to be."

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