Dissolving Barriers: New Orleans Latino Health Outreach Project

Catherine Jones and Jennifer Whitney
Date Published: 
June 26, 2006
    The sun is still below the horizon when we arrive: three cars, many boxes of supplies, and five to ten people wearing scrubs, most of us women. Hazily, as the coffee is still kicking in, we begin to set up treatment stations on the hoods of cars and the beds of pickups. The parking lot we’re in and the one across the street are sparking with activity as about one hundred people, mostly male Latino day laborers, look for work in the still-devastated city of New Orleans.

The men gather, ask each other what vaccines they should get, share information about employers who don’t pay, and tell us about their families back in Texas, Veracruz, or Bahia. The wind picks up, sending gravel dust swirling around us, and people chase after Band-Aids and alcohol swabs that took flight in the gust. A regular comes by to show us how much better his leg is doing and to ask for some more vitamins. Someone else drops by to invite us to his daughter’s quinceañera, her fifteenth birthday party. Several people come for their final dose of hepatitis B vaccine; we’ve seen them off and on for six months.

These Latino Health Outreach Project (LHOP) clinics are always busy, as is every functional health care provider in this city, from the first aid stations to the ERs. The terrifying reality in New Orleans these days is that there is virtually no public health infrastructure, and so our scrappy little clinic in the parking lot is, for some of our patients, the option they feel is safest. Never mind the fact that we can’t dispense medication, rarely have a doctor on-site, and can’t do lab work or even full physical exams. We’re here every Wednesday, we speak our patients’ languages, we don’t ask about immigration status (or even last names), and we do our best to respect the dignity of each of them.

Healthcare needs

In the second week after Katrina hit, the Common Ground Free Clinic opened in Algiers, an unflooded neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River. At the time, it was one of only two places offering healthcare in the region. A few weeks later, some of us began assessing health care needs in the flood zones. We quickly realized that among the many gaps in the city’s public healthcare infrastructure there was a source of culturally competent, bilingual healthcare for pre-Katrina Latino residents as well as the vast numbers of recently arrived workers.

We began setting up clinics on sidewalks and parking lots in areas where Latino workers were staying. Initially, the clinics consisted of two people giving tetanus shots and over-the-counter medications. Within a few weeks, more providers were added, including MDs, nurse practitioners, acupuncturists, and herbalists. We now do one clinic a week in the early morning at a day labor pick-up site in downtown New Orleans, one in a church out in suburban Kenner where we do limited primary care and family medicine, and we occasionally hold clinics at other sites.

In addition to providing healthcare, we are committed to improving our patients’ access to healthcare across the city, supporting struggles for justice for immigrants and working people, and building relationships with organizations who have a history of working in New Orleans’ Latino community as well as with post-storm initiatives dedicated to supporting residents’ right of return. At every step we charge ourselves to remain accountable to and take leadership from local people and organizations of color.

Before the storm, there were few Latinos in the city. As one national day laborer organizer points out, “New Orleans and Pittsburgh were the only two cities of their size in the country where race was almost entirely a Black and white issue. Both had remarkably small Latino populations.” New Orleans and its outlying areas were seven percent Latino, but the city proper had only three percent prior to the storm.

New context

Meanwhile, nine months after Hurricane Katrina, almost sixty percent of New Orleans’ original residents have yet to return, as much of the city still lacks basic services. The planning and reconstruction continue to move forward without their input. This diaspora of New Orleanians still scattered across the US tends to be overwhelmingly African-American and lower income than those who have made it back. They have no assurance there will be housing, schools, hospitals, or utilities—not to mention childcare, employment, and protection from future flooding—if they are to be able to return.

With such a large sector of the local labor force unable to contribute to (and benefit from) the reconstruction of the city, it is no surprise that workers are arriving in droves from other states and countries to seek employment. They are Black, Asian, white, and Latino; they come from places as diverse as California, Texas, Colorado, Georgia, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Brazil, and Mexico. These new workers have arrived in a city with few Spanish speakers, little awareness of immigrants’ needs and issues, and with five times as many agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE—formerly the INS) as agents from the Department of Labor who, in theory, enforce labor laws.

In this new context, organizers see this situation as a historic opportunity to build a multiracial workers’ justice movement uniting (mostly local) African-Americans and (mostly newly arrived) Latinos. Soon after the storm, the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, a diverse group of organizers, advocates, residents, and service providers based in New Orleans’ Latino and African-American communities, started planning a multiracial workers’ center to use organizing as a way to build bridges across racial lines in a city where people of color are beginning to be pitted against one another.

We are excited to be a part of this coalition because it allows our work to concretely support organizing for workers’ and immigrants’ rights in New Orleans, even as we maintain our role as healthcare providers, not organizers.

In a way, we envision our clinics as a tool to help dissolve the barrier between service provision and organizing that commonly exists. In the absence of a functioning workers’ center where service provision, advocacy, and organizing would take place, our clinics are a potential focal point for just such a hybrid of activity, support, and leadership development. For now, the day laborer clinics serve as an excellent connection point between our patients and the organizers from the Worker Justice Coalition. At times, organizers have come to our clinics to hand out know-your-rights materials or talk with workers about upcoming events. We’d love to see our clinics serve as a steady point of contact between workers and organizers as the work of the Coalition grows.

Significant questions

Like most organizations that began in New Orleans after Katrina, we are struggling with our own transition from a stopgap emergency response crew to a rooted, long-term community organization. We are facing significant questions as we try to determine the future of our work and how it fits into the service-versus-organizing paradigm. Do we see our clinics ultimately as an organizing tool or as a valid source of primary healthcare? Can we legitimately be both? How does our vision for our clinics coincide with our patients’ needs and their understanding of our work? How does our limited capacity affect what we can provide?

We also find ourselves challenged by our relationship to the Common Ground Clinic, the free clinic out of which LHOP began, which is now one part of a much larger organization of primarily white volunteers, mostly from outside New Orleans. In the months after the hurricane, Common Ground has received significant feedback from local, people of color-led organizations concerning accounta