"Shelter" Takes an Unflinching Look at New Orleans' Homeless Youth

By Dorri Olds 03/02/18

"If a child leaves, we take them back. If they leave again, we take them back. Because if not us, who? And if not now, when?"


The French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana boasts Cajun music, fried chicken, and Jambalaya. What you may not know is that it’s also home to one branch of Covenant House, a nonprofit organization for kids who have been homeless and victims of sex trafficking. It is the only place in the state of Louisiana willing to take in these traumatized youths.

That is the subject of Shelter for VICE Documentary Films. Executive produced by Michael K. Williams (The Wire) and created by Peabody Award-winning brothers, Brent and Craig Renaud (Last Chance High), it grabs you from the first frame and doesn’t let go.

The opening is a close-up view of a woman seated at a desk and holding a phone. She has long rows of braids and neon-orange fingernail polish. We only hear her side of the conversation, “What is your problem? She’s a minor.” Her voice is stern, authoritative and she has obviously had many conversations like this before. Then her tone softens which indicates that she is now speaking to the girl. “He’s known for prostitution,” she says. “Go to the Greyhound station and give them your name. You’re going to have a ticket waiting for you.” She instructs the girl to sit in the front by the bus driver and before hanging up she says affectionately, “Alright, baby.”

Another call comes in. This time she’s being summoned to deal with a shouting match outside. We hear a woman screaming at a man—the camera shows his hands clamped onto her purse. Both look disheveled, out of control and out of their minds. In New York City, I’ve seen passersby hurriedly walk away from a million scenes like this. We are often immune to homeless people but the Renauds take us inside their experience. The scuffle is handled quickly, in an orderly fashion, then the Covenant House residents are ushered back inside.

Next is a tight shot on a girl’s round face. She looks about 15. Her skin is pale pink and she has a cute upturned nose. The youngster begins speaking lovingly about recently smoking “beaucoup weed.” Her green eyes widen, accentuated by long, sepia eyelashes. Her expression changes and the next words don’t seem to fit her baby face: “I just said fuck it, I’m gonna get a rig. I might just shoot up anything I can get my hands on. I just wanna feel this fucking needle. I wanna see the blood draw back and I’m gonna shoot it into my arm. And if I miss…I hope I get a blood clot and die.”

And that’s just the movie’s opening.

The Renauds spent six months filming on location in the Big Easy. They witness Covenant House taking in mentally ill teens who are in crisis. The majority have been using drugs and alcohol for years. They’re nomads, going from place to place with plastic garbage bags slung over their shoulders packed with everything they own.

One loner among the others is Elizabeth. She is clearly the star. She is striking, captivating, but bony. In many scenes her almond eyes dart around as she talks about things that are only real in her head. Quick as a blink, you’ll see her transform into a calm woman with an overwhelming sweetness who can hold a coherent conversation.

Renaud told The Fix, “Elizabeth is definitely the main focus of the film; she was struggling with addiction more than any of the others. She’d drink a lot, smoke lots of a synthetic marijuana mix that’s very common in New Orleans. Self-medicating is something you hear about constantly at Covenant House. And at the school in Chicago.”

The school in Chicago is Last Chance High, a previous project that the siblings also produced for VICE. The filmmakers spent a year in the Windy City at what Renaud referred to as “a therapeutic public high school for special needs.” Many of the students there had been kicked out of other schools for violent outbursts like breaking a teacher’s arm.

When asked what motivated the brothers to make Shelter, Renaud said, “In Chicago we’d started seeing links between mental illness and violence with these kids but it also felt like we had just scratched the surface on the correlation between mental illness and drug addiction.”

At Covenant House, treating mental illness is the most demanding challenge. Renaud explained, “Obviously, you can’t treat someone like Elizabeth if she’s abusing drugs and alcohol. The medications don’t mix well, so, not only do you have to convince these kids to take the medication, but you’ve got to get them sober long enough to do it.”

That proved difficult for Elizabeth. She couldn’t be forced to take her monthly shot if she couldn’t stay clean long enough. The film makes it clear this is an ongoing struggle at Covenant House: treatment may be able to get someone sober long enough to begin medication but often the person goes right back to misusing substances.

“Some of those medications have really bad side effects if you drink or do drugs,” said Renaud. “Being that young, living on the streets, and abusing drugs is already multiple problems. Then you have another issue: adolescence is usually the age of the onset of mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar.”

It’s clear throughout the film that the Covenant House workers are there because they want to be. There’s a display of tenderness and patience that stands out in sharp relief against the anger and stubbornness of the young people. My first question for Jim Kelly, a staff member featured in the film, was if their patience was real or skewed due to the presence of cameras. Kelly laughed and said, “Yes, they’re amazingly patient. Look, you have to be because of everything these young people have been through. If you cannot find the patience, you gotta go find some other work.”

The staff includes psychiatrists and social workers who’ve been there for years and have learned how to calm down out-of-control teens.

“If a child leaves, we take them back. If they leave again, we take them back. Because if not us, who? And if not now, when? Some of them have been sex trafficked and those are our most fragile and damaged,” Kelly added.

Last October, The Fix interviewed Jerome Elam, president of Trafficking in America Task Force, who said that human traffickers have always used drugs as a tool: “Addiction is used to manipulate victims.”

Kelly agreed. “You’ve got so many things to deal with,” he said. “You’re overcoming the whole aspect of sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape. Overcoming drug addictions. Drugs and trafficking go hand in hand and a lot of people miss that. It is exactly how the pimps hook you and if you’re not already addicted, they make sure to get you addicted.”

Covenant House also works as an emergency shelter where homeless kids can come in off the street. Some of them don’t stay long, so the staff, including their medical team, try to stabilize them as much as possible. For those who stick around longer, there are success stories. The staff’s goal is for each child to stay long enough to go through their jobs program. The idea is to help them get a job and transition out of Covenant House and into their own place.

You can read periodic updates about the youths at shelterdocumentary.com. It is uplifting and miraculous to see that so many of these young people are doing well. For others, stability is fleeting. I started crying when I read Elizabeth’s update.

Elizabeth had come a long way. She was taking her medications regularly and had moved into her own apartment with her newborn child, Georgia. However, she ‘slipped’ and started using again. We helped get her into a number of drug rehab programs. Mr. Jim [Kelly] last saw her in October when she stopped by to tell him she had been clean for 18 days. We have tried to find Elizabeth and Georgia, but to no avail.

Watch the full-length documentary on Vice:

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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