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Ronald McDonald House is changing hands, and neighbors are wary of the new owner

4403 Canal St. (Ronald McDonald House of South Louisiana)

By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger

Ronald McDonald Charities is saying goodbye to its longtime New Orleans home, the cheerful yellow house on Canal Street and North Alexander. The local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, will be taking its place.

Both nonprofits are gaining more space to carry out their missions. While the changes are positive for both organizations and the people they help, some residents of the Mid-City neighborhood are wary of the new use, especially given the clientele NAMI serves.

The Ronald McDonald House is vacating the building it has called home for 40 years to move Uptown into two renovated buildings on the Children’s Hospital campus.

NAMI New Orleans is currently in the process of purchasing the building, according to its board members. It plans to move from its current base on Louisiana Avenue near St. Charles Avenue.

Since 1978, NAMI has been providing psychosocial support for people living with mental illness. Its core service is the “clubhouse,” a group therapeutic model that lets participants help each other, with professional guidance, get their lives back together.

The clubhouse does not provide traditional mental health services, said Calvin Johnson, New Orleans NAMI’s interim director.

“This is a place where people living with mental illness can come. They can feel welcome. They can feel supported. They can feel appreciated,” Johnson said. “And they can learn the skills that are going to help them to be productive citizens in our community.”

The 8,700-square-foot house at 4403 Canal will give NAMI a chance to expand this program, which is based on a model proven to reduce suicide and hospitalization by helping individuals gain dignity and independence.

Under the area’s Historic Urban Neighborhood Business District (HU-B1) zoning, NAMI needs city approval to operate in a space larger than 5,000 square feet. As part of this process, NAMI New Orleans held a Neighborhood Participation Project meeting last week at First Grace Methodist Church to discuss the plans with nearby residents.

The building will be used primarily as office space for the NAMI’s eight staff members, Johnson said. The staff and volunteers provide family support, education and advocacy as well as the psychosocial programs.

NAMI New Orleans helps patients and family members navigate the maze of local psychiatric and social services. It also holds support groups for people struggling to cope with and help a mentally ill loved one. These groups are currently held virtually but will eventually take place in the NAMI offices, Johnson said.

Johnson was joined at the meeting by NAMI New Orleans staff and board members, who showed up in roughly equal numbers to Mid-City neighbors.

The residents expressed concerns over parking congestion and over what they saw as a potential to bring more crime into the area.

Parking

Parking is tight in historic neighborhoods throughout the city, especially in residential areas near business corridors. Mid-City near Canal Street is no exception.

“I am totally in support of NAMI and its programs,” said a North Alexander Street resident. “But I am very concerned about the more intensive use of the building. Parking is a nightmare, and it’s going to be hard for your staff and your clients as well.”

About a dozen people attend the clubhouse, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays during business hours. NAMI provides transportation for most of the participants, who come from a four-parish area. A few get there on own, NAMI staff members said, primarily by public transportation. 

 The property has three off-street parking spaces, and on the busiest days it needs space for about 12 cars, NAMI staff said. 

“Working in that area, I can tell you that finding 12 parking spots is a feat of magic,” an audience member said.

Johnson offered to put up signs up reminding clients not park illegally and to direct the staff to park blocks away. Someone pointed out that they are unlikely to find parking anywhere within walking distance. 

“I can’t solve it,” Johnson said. “That’s all I got.” No one responded when he asked for suggestions.

Calvin Johnson, NAMI New Orleans interim director and retired Criminal Court judge (Mid-City Messenger)
Clientele

While any development in historic New Orleans comes with parking concerns, the nature of NAMI’s work carries a distinctive stigma.

“My biggest concern is of clientele coming in at different hours,” said one neighbor. 

The staff and board members emphasized that NAMI is not a residential facility. Nobody will live there, and, except for the possibility of family support groups in the evenings, it will only operate during normal business hours, they said.

The clubhouse is limited to Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., said NAMI Board President Ashleigh Castro.

When that did not satisfy the audience member, Castro asked: “Are you talking about mentally ill people walking around the neighborhood?”

“Yes, as a homeowner, that is a concern,” he responded.

He said it is also a concern because he has been a crime victim. “I don’t want people who have been in the criminal justice system and are maybe on probation or released early or whatnot and have mental health issues in our neighborhood, loitering in the area,” he said. 

To be accepted in the clubhouse program, participants cannot have criminal backgrounds, NAMI officials said. Clubhouse members are generally stabilized, in treatment elsewhere and on medication.

Ashleigh Castro, NAMI New Orleans board president and licensed professional counselor (Mid-City Messenger)
LEAD program

However, another NAMI-affiliated program will be housed in the building,  Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD. Several people in the audience said they were there because of concerns about LEAD.

This program works with the New Orleans Police Department’s Eighth District to keep low-level offenders and potential offenders with behavioral health problems out of the criminal justice system.

”I’ve done some research, and LEAD clientele includes prostitutes, low-level drug offenders and petty criminals,” an audience member said. ”This program will operate 1,000 feet of two schools. So, fair warning to all the neighbors.” The Christian Brothers Canal Street Campus and Success Prep at Thurgood Marshall are both about two blocks away.

The LEAD caseworkers go to where their clients are, Patrick Kemmerly, LEAD’s casework supervisor, told the neighbors. They primarily meet clients in the French Quarter, where many of them live, or go out to take them to appointments.

However, some clients occasionally come to the office. Kemmerly said they had about 15 office visits in the past year. “One is too many,” someone called out from the audience.

LEAD does not accept any violent offenders, Kemmerly told the neighbors. He assured them the case workers will only meet clients on Canal Street during business hours and would make sure they went directly home.

LEAD is not taking people out of prison, said board member Leisa Farrar. It is working to keep people away from the prison system by helping them get their lives straight. Its goal is to prevent crimes from occurring.

‘That is not what this is’

Speaking in defense of NAMI’s programs, Farrar, a registered nurse who spent two decades working in the old Charity Hospital emergency room, said she is well acquainted with psychiatric crises.

“That is not what this is. This is family members discussing with other family members how to deal with the breakdowns,” she said. “Most of our clients have lived with mental illness for years; they are on their medications. If not, they are sent to a hospital. They go through massive amounts of programs there and other places with psychiatrists and therapists and doctors.

“We don’t provide that. We pick them up at the end to try to stabilize them and keep them safe.”

The people in the clubhouse are primarily among the city’s working poor, she said, just looking for place where they can fit in.

“That’s what we’re trying to do — give a little kindness to people nobody ever gave a crap about,” she said. “You see them wandering the streets, and everyone goes, I don’t want these people in my neighborhood. Well, they don’t want to be in your neighborhood. They want someplace to live. They want to be with their families.”

Everything NAMI is proposing for the 4403 Canal St. is permitted under the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, said NAMI’s land-use consultant, Mike Sherman of Sherman Strategies. It’s simply the size of the building, because it can bring an intensification of use, that demands the city approval process.

NAMI will apply for a conditional use, Sherman said, and the proposal will first go before the City Planning Commission for a hearing. It then must receive approval from the City Council.

Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at khart@nolamessenger.com

2 Replies to “Ronald McDonald House is changing hands, and neighbors are wary of the new owner

  1. We’ll never solve the mental health crisis if we don’t help those with a mental health issue! One of the problems is people tend to associate mental illness with crime. There are many, many people who need help who are not criminals. Of course, if help doesn’t become more available and if we don’t erase the stigma, we’ll always be in crisis mode. Parking is a concern, but it has been a business for years – where did those people park?????

  2. I have lived across the street from NAMI on Louisiana Avenue for 25 + years. For the first ten years my family and I didn’t even know they were there as we never were aware of any staff or client comings and goings. In 2008, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic & Assistance Foundation, of which I am co-founder and President of the Board, began to actively partner with NAMI, as a provider of vital mental health services for many of our cultural community. Each year we help raise awareness and funding for NAMI as part of their NAMI Walk in November in Audubon Park. I urge you to welcome this remarkable team of mental health providers into your community.

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