Janet Hays
Janet Hays Credit: Kimberlee Lauer

Since Charity Hospital was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, it seems like everyone has come forward with a plan for the adaptive reuse of the Art Deco masterpiece. And yet eight years later it stands empty. Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to put City Hall and Civil District Court in the building, though he hasn’t gotten the judges to agree. The Lens solicited the views of our readers and city leaders; over the next several days we are publishing edited versions of their ideas. Post your reactions in the comments below each story.

I recommend that the historic Charity Hospital building be renovated for inpatient psychiatric care, as well as mental-health, biomedical and life-sciences research, health-care cooperatives and clinics. The building could operate as a “one-stop shop” for government services that meet a variety of needs.

I am imagining the building divided into three components. One tower should be dedicated to mental-health needs. The middle portion should be renovated and leased to individuals and organizations involved in general health services, education and research.

The third tower should be a one-stop shop that might include welfare and food stamp offices, the New Orleans offices of the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals and its Department of Children and Family Services. Social Security offices could be housed there and perhaps some employment services as well. These government functions are currently scattered all over the city, making access very difficult for the poor and those most in need. And not only are they scattered, they seem to move every couple of years, so it’s not uncommon for people to miss crucial appointments – to say nothing of the cost of all this moving around to both the organizations and to taxpayers.

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]The sad truth is that Orleans Parish Prison is currently the city’s No. 1 psychiatric care facility. What we need instead are supportive communities with wrap-around services and outpatient care, places where patients can be housed after their discharge from hospitals.[/module]The health-education and research components would not only help spur development of Louisiana’s medical industry, they might also make the building eligible for bond money from the Health Education Authority of Louisiana. Rents from privately leased space could be used to finance the building’s psychiatric services and provide a funding mechanism to pay back the bond money.

As residents, tourists and business leaders regularly observe, the city’s downtown streets are home to a significant number of residents with apparent mental health problems. The numbers are likely to increase.

People with mental-health needs are often uninsured and stigmatized by a society that fears or scorns them. To top it off, both inpatient and outpatient care is grossly insufficient.

Those who have insurance can find long-term treatment in private facilities such as Children’s Hospital on State Street. Those without insurance are hard-pressed to find any services at all — outside of Orleans Parish Prison.

As a response to mental health needs, expanding the new jail to include an additional 600 beds is both inhumane and expensive. The majority of mentally ill people end up in jail because they stop taking their medications. Criminalizing them does not offer a long-term solution to recidivism.

Common sense tells us that a jail is not conducive to restoring mental stability. Indeed, problems are only likely to worsen in an environment bereft of the caring support of friends and families that mental patients need.

The sad truth is that Orleans Parish Prison is currently the city’s No. 1 psychiatric care facility. What we need instead are supportive communities with wrap-around services and outpatient care, places where patients can be housed after their discharge from hospitals.

Since the financial crisis hit in 2008, nearly 4,000 psychiatric beds have been eliminated nationwide or are being considered for elimination, and 11 state hospitals have been closed or are being considered for closure, according to a March 2011 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. At the same time, community services, including crisis intervention and stabilization programs, have been eliminated.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, 65 to 70 percent of inpatient psychiatric beds have been eliminated.

“History illustrates that eliminating hospital beds without appropriate community alternatives is cruel, irresponsible public policy and leads to shifting of costs to criminal justice systems and emergency departments rather than true cost savings,” the report says.

“A range of options for responding to youth and adults in crisis is needed, including mobile crisis teams, 24-hour crisis-stabilization programs, and inpatient beds in community hospitals. It is also important to preserve beds in state hospitals, particularly for those individuals requiring intermediate or long-term care,” the report says.

Before the unnecessary closure of Charity, the hospital maintained approximately 128 psychiatric beds on the third floor. We should not be reinventing services that once made our community a national model.

Substantial evidence shows the feasibility of renovating Charity for psychiatric care. In August 2007, the state Office of Facility Planning and Control commissioned the Blitch Knevel architecture firm to study Charity’s potential for renovation. The study concluded that the psychiatric portion of the building could be brought back for about $50 million, a fraction of the cost of new construction. An alternative strategy for partially reactivating psychiatric services at Charity would cost less, the study concluded.

Other studies show that while the building may be unsuitable for courtrooms, it is perfect for a modern day hospital and, I would argue, research laboratories.

In the study ordered by the Louisiana Legislature and commissioned by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, RMJM Hillier, architects of the now operational Louisiana Cancer Research Center, showed that the entire building could be brought back as a full-service teaching hospital for $600 million — again, far less than the new construction going up on the other side of Claiborne Avenue.

In 2010, mental health professionals devised a one-year patient-rehabilitation program that would release patients into transitional communities with tight wrap-around services. That’s exactly the niche a repurposed Charity could fulfill, using just a third of the available space.

It is too late to right many of the wrongs that residents of New Orleans have had to endure throughout the years, but reusing Charity Hospital for medical services — a purpose for which it was always intended — is one wrong that is not too late to right. It enjoys enormous support from a cross-section of the community. And unlike a civic center, it would not cost city taxpayers a penny.

Janet Hays is a community organizer and justice advocate. As part of the Save Charity Hospital organization, she helped with research and outreach. She blogs at Save Charity Hospital.

Others weigh in on the future of Charity