Archive for August, 2009
By: Jordan Flaherty, Contributing Writer
Posted: Monday, August 31, 2009 1:03 pm
On the Fourth Anniversary of Katrina, New Orleans is still far from recovery
Crawling through a hole in a fence and walking through an open doorway, Shamus Rohn and Mike Miller lead the way into an abandoned Mid-City hospital. They are outreach workers for the New Orleans organization UNITY for the Homeless, and they do this all day long; searching empty houses and buildings for people, so they can offer services and support. “We joke about having turned criminal trespass into a full-time job,” says Rohn.
Up a darkened stairway and through the detritus of a thoroughly scavenged building, Rohn and Miller enter a sundrenched room. Inside is Michael Palmer, a 57-year-old white former construction worker and merchant seaman who has made a home here. Palmer – his friends call him Mickey – is in some ways lucky. He found a room with a door that locks. He salvaged some furniture from other parts of the hospital, so he has a bed, a couch, and a rug. Best of all, he has a fourth-floor room with a balcony. “Of all the homeless,” he says, “I probably have the best view.”
Mickey has lived here for six months. He’s been homeless since shortly after Katrina, and this is by far the best place he’s stayed in that time. “I’ve lived on the street,” he says. “I’ve slept in a cardboard box.” He is a proud man, thin and muscled with a fresh shave, clean clothes and a trim mustache. He credits a nearby church, which lets him shave and shower.
But Palmer would like to be able to pay rent again. “My apartment was around $450. I could afford $450. I can’t afford $700 or $800 and that’s what the places have gone up to.” Keeping himself together, well-dressed and fresh, Mickey is trying to go back to the life he had. “I have never lived on the dole of the state,” he says proudly. “I’ve never been on welfare, never collected food stamps.” Palmer rented an apartment before Katrina. He did repairs and construction. “I had my own business,” he says. “I had a pickup truck with all my tools, and all that went under water.”
Palmer is one of thousands of homeless people living in New Orleans’ storm-damaged and abandoned homes and buildings. Four years after Katrina, recovery and rebuilding have come slow to this city, and there are many boarded-up homes to choose from. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center counts 65,888 abandoned residential addresses in New Orleans, and this number doesn’t include any of the many non-residential buildings, like the hospital Mickey stays in. Overall, about a third of the addresses in the city are vacant or abandoned, the highest rate in the nation. UNITY for the Homeless is the only organization surveying these spaces, and Miller and Rohn are the only full-time staff on the project. They have surveyed 1,330 buildings – a small fraction of the total number of empty structures. Of those, 564 were unsecured. Nearly 40 percent of them showed signs of use, including a total of 270 bedrolls or mattresses.
Using conservative estimates, UNITY estimates at least 6,000 squatters, and a total of about 11,000 homeless individuals in the city.
UNITY workers have also found that not all people living in New Orleans’ abandoned homes are squatters. In the last three months alone, they have found nine homeowners living in their own toxic, flood-damaged, often completely unrepaired homes. These are people living in buildings – identified as abandoned and not fit for human habitation – that they (or extended family members) actually own, but cannot afford to repair.
The abandoned building dwellers they’ve found are generally older than the overall homeless population, with high rates of disability and illness. The average age of folks they have found is 45, and the oldest was 90. More than 70 percent report or show signs of psychiatric disorders, and 42 percent show signs of disabling medical illnesses and problems. Disabling means “people that are facing death if not treated properly,” clarifies Rohn. “We’re not talking about something like high blood pressure.”
Life in Abandoned Homes
“This leg here bent backwards and the muscle came up,” says Naomi Burkhalter, an elderly Black woman in a wheelchair, sitting outside of the abandoned house she lives in and gesturing to her badly twisted leg. She was injured during Katrina, and can’t walk. She stays in a flood-damaged house in New Orleans’ Gert Town neighborhood, with no electricity or running water. She says the owner – who cannot afford to repair the home – knows she lives there, along with two other women. When they need water, they fill bottles up from neighbors. When she needs to get in and out of her house, she crawls, very slowly dragging herself up and down the steps with her hands, leaving her wheelchair outside and hoping no one takes it. Miss Naomi worked at a shrimp company and rented an apartment before Katrina. Now, between her injury and higher rents, she can no longer afford her former home. “My rent was $350,” she explains, “but when I came back, my rent was up to $1200.” Burkhalter has been homeless since then.
UNITY has received funding from the federal government for 752 housing vouchers specifically to help house the city’s homeless population. They have put people on a list, with those in the most danger of dying if they don’t get help on the top of the list. However, the vouchers still have not arrived, and at least 16 people from the list have already died while waiting. “The stress and trauma that these people have endured cannot be overstated,” says Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY. “The neighborhood infrastructure that so many people depended on is gone.”
This problem was exacerbated by the demolition of thousands of units of public housing, an act which not only took away the community that many people found brought them comfort and safety, but has also made affordable rentals for poor New Orleanians even harder to find. Section 8 subsidized housing has been offered as a solution for those displaced from public housing and other poor renters, but a new study from Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) shows that discrimination keeps many people from finding quality housing through the program. According to the report, 82% of landlords in the city either refused to accept Section 8 vouchers, or added insurmountable requirements.
The study found that both discrimination on the part of landlords (99 percent of Section 8 voucher holders in Orleans Parish are Black) and mismanagement on the part of the housing agency were barriers. One prospective landlord told a tester for GNOFHAC that he wouldn’t rent to Section 8 holders, “until Black ministers…start teaching morals and ethics to their own, so they don’t have litters of pups like animals, and they’re not milking the system.”
The mismanagement from the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) was also a big problem for prospective landlords. “I faxed HANO the needed information 12 times for the rent I was never paid,” said one landlord. Another housing provider said, “I called every day for a month and never got a call back.”
Last month, more than a hundred members of STAND for Dignity, a grassroots membership project of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, protested outside of the offices of HANO, decrying their lack of action. A single mother named Ayesha told the crowd that she had been on the Section 8 waiting list for eight years, and still hasn’t received any help. She is paying 80 percent of her income on rent, and has been forced to go months at a time without water, gas or lights. George Tucker, another member of STAND, and also (like Mickey Palmer) a former merchant mariner, told the assembled crowd his story of being evicted from his apartment because HANO lost his paperwork. Because of bureaucratic carelessness, he was homeless for thirteen months. “This governmental crookedness is not new,” he said. “But it cannot continue without consequences.”
Last week, at least partly in response to criticism from folks like the members of STAND, HANO announced that they would accept new applications for Section 8 vouchers, for the first time in six years. The period that they will accept applications in is only a week long – from September 6 through 12.
Fear and Harassment
“My best friend died three weeks ago in this chair,” Mickey Palmer said, gesturing next to him in his room in the abandoned hospital. “There was two other people staying here with me. One gentleman got in an accident about two months ago and he’s paralyzed in the hospital. Another friend of mine OD’ed and died here three weeks ago. My best friend. So I’m here alone.”
Palmer also fears police harassment. “The police hate homeless people,” he declares. “They’ll arrest me on drunk in public,” he says. “I haven’t had a drink in months.” Gesturing around the room that he has made into a home, he adds, “Of course, this is illegal. If I get caught I can not only be evicted, but incarcerated. I could go to jail for trespassing.”
This fear drives the homeless further underground, and makes it even harder for organizations like UNITY to find them and offer help. “Our city has a long history of police criminalization of homelessness, so people have reason to hide,” explains Martha Kegel.
Despite the size and scope of this problem, help has been hard to come by, from either the city, state, or federal government. “I’m not a politician and I’m not politically savvy,” says Palmer. “But I don’t think they care.”
In a rare step forward last month, both houses of Louisiana’s legislature unanimously passed a bill creating a statewide agency – to be almost entirely funded by the federal government – to address the issue of homelessness. However, Governor Jindal vetoed the bill. Jindal also vetoed funding for the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, further reducing medical and mental health services in the city – another factor that has made life hard for many homeless folks in the city. As rates of mental illness rise in the city, we now have less treatment available then ever before.
For people like Mickey, caught in a city with few good-paying jobs, much more expensive housing, and ever-decreasing social services, there are not many options. “At one time we were part of the city and part of the workforce,” Mickey says. “But people cannot afford the housing in New Orleans anymore. I find most of the people I know, my friends, they can’t afford the rent.”
Like most people in his position, Palmer has felt hopelessness at his plight. “I try not to get depressed, he says, nervously flicking his lighter. “But this can get you depressed. Coming back here last night got me a little depressed.”
This story first appeared in Left Turn Magazine of which Jordan Flaherty is editor. He is also a staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. His reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans shared a journalism award from New America Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the August 31, 2009 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaperView Post
by Kathy Lohr – NPR
Four years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has regained about 75 percent of its pre-storm population, and there are signs of economic progress. But although New Orleans is rebuilding its arts and tourism venues, including a $165 million theme park in New Orleans East, a shadowy second society exists.
According to a recent study, 124,000 people have received nearly $8 billion in federal grants to help rebuild their homes. But others are barely making it. Since Katrina, homelessness in the city has doubled to an estimated 12,000. Some are in shelters, but about half continue to live in the city’s more than 65,000 abandoned buildings.
‘It’s Really, Really Depressing’
Grace Bailey lives in the remains of a four-room house with two other squatters not far from Tulane University. They sleep on tattered mattresses or on the floor. Part of the roof is missing, so it has rained inside, and now the leak has spread to Bailey’s bedroom.
“I had a two-bedroom house and a bath-and-a-half round there,” she says. “And to be here, you know, it’s depressing. It’s really, really depressing.”
It’s late at night, but still hot and sticky. Bailey and her fellow squatters have rigged up electricity. Unlike most, they have a fan, some dim lamps and a small hot plate on the floor where noodles are cooking. There is no water, but Bailey says they fill up buckets from neighbors’ sinks to flush the toilet and to clean themselves.
Before Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav hit, Bailey says, she had a job at the shrimp factory. But she lost the job and then her home.
The Most Disabled, The Most Vulnerable, The Poorest
Walking through darkened abandoned buildings with broken glass has become a fulltime job for Mike Miller.
Since December, armed only with flashlights, Miller and Shamus Rohn with Unity of Greater New Orleans have searched more than 1,300 vacant buildings for evidence of squatters.
As Miller walks through a building on Canal Street that was once the City Hall annex, he says he’s afraid of opening doors. A young woman was found dead inside last month.
Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity, says that so far this year the group has found 270 bedrolls and other signs that people are camping out in empty buildings.
“And it should come as no surprise to anybody that the people that are suffering the most, year four after the storm, are the most disabled, the most vulnerable and the poorest,” she says. “Right now, we have 850 people on our supportive housing registry. Those are people who are actually on the street in abandoned buildings or in homeless shelters who have severe disabilities. And they’re of such severity that they can’t remain stably housed unless they had both the subsidy and the case management, very importantly.”
Kegel says the majority of those in abandoned buildings lived in New Orleans before Katrina. One third got FEMA assistance, but when the money ran out, they ended up on the streets.
Another problem is the cost of housing. New Orleans’ rents are up about 40 percent since 2005. And housing advocates say many who work in the tourism sector and others with low-paying jobs find it difficult to afford anything.
“There’s not enough affordable housing,” says Allison Plyer, who is with the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. In partnership with the Brookings Institution, she puts together an annual assessment of the recovery.
“We had rents before the storm that averaged about $500, and now rents for just a studio apartment are close to $800,” Plyer says. “So folks who maybe have the same wage levels — or slightly higher than they did perhaps pre-Katrina — they just cannot afford the rents.”
Plyer says housing prices will remain higher because the cost of insurance and other housing expenses have gone up. Also, the city’s big four public housing complexes were demolished.
They are being rebuilt, but no apartments are available yet. Last week, Mayor Ray Nagin told a congressional panel studying housing that much of the federal money allocated for the city’s recovery had not yet reached New Orleans.
‘To Me, It’s Heaven’
Back on the streets, the Unity outreach team stops by to check on Ludmilla Damon, whom everyone calls Jaz. She wasn’t displaced by Katrina, but moved to an abandoned building after the storm to rescue animals. Damon got into drugs, and that’s how she ended up on the street, she says — first under a bridge, then in vacant buildings and now in a four-room apartment.
“It’s all right,” she says. “It’s a heck of a lot better than we were going through, and to me, it’s heaven. To me, it’s heaven.”
Damon, 42, says she wants to find a job and start over.
“It’s nice to be able to roll over on your bed and know that you’re not rolling over because you heard a noise in the hallway that you might have to get up and investigate — and you know the police aren’t coming in to raid,” she says. “It’s really nice, creature comforts people take for granted. I mean, once you get ‘em again, I mean, you never forget how wonderful it is.”
Unity is launching a new program in October paid for by federal stimulus funds. It will provide short-term rental and job assistance for about 2,000 households in New Orleans — those who are already homeless and others who are most at risk.
I could write about the people that we’re finding living in these buildings; the schizophrenic, the elderly, the addicted, the mentally retarded. I could write about the inhumanity of a system so fragile that hospitals discharge the sick into squalor and prisons send our mentally ill into the streets, but that’s another entry. I want to write about the conditions of these buildings.
What is it like to live in an abandoned building? Well, in a nutshell, it sucks. These are building that were flooded four years ago and have not been touched. Many still have the remnants of the previous occupants including moldy furniture, clothes rotting in closets, cans of rusty food sitting in cupboards. The air is putrid and reeks of the black mold that
has grown and died along the walls after the flood. The floorboards are termite infested and give without warning, creating a pock marked maze forcing our clients to navigate carefully in the dark of late night. The roofs are often scarred, if not from the winds of Katrina, then through the pick axes used by the previous occupants to escape the rising flood waters. Rain comes through and dampens everything creating an exhausting humidity that dampens our clients and their possessions.
The facilities are primal. Many clients have access to running water in the form of a generous neighbor or a leaking fire hydrant. This water must then be toted back to the home and placed into the toilet in order to dispose of the human wastes. It is left in the sun, collecting mosquito larvae and bird droppings, in the hope that a luke-warm sponge bath can provide some relief from the stench of living in the New Orleans summer without air conditioning. It is used for drinking.
There is the constant threat of eviction. Our clients are looking for shelter, but to others they are criminally trespassing and are vagrants. The police are vigilant about arresting our clients as they enter and exit their squats. Neighbors call the police, they call the homes owner’s and they call the local neighborhood tough to evict our clients through any means possible. You sleep lightly, paranoid of physical damage to self as someone decides you’re an easy mark for violence. The door you walked through hasn’t locked in four years and crumbles when pushed anyways. You walked in around 11 PM while the neighbors slept. You lay you head down, using you stinky tennis shoes as a pillow, knowing that you have to leave at 5 AM before the neighbors wake up and see you leave.
The winter is brutal. 40 degrees and 70% humidity soaks your blanket and leaves a cold saturated pillow as your head rest. The house that was inviting in the fall becomes a liability as it holds the freeze within its leaky walls. The frigid wetness is combated with a small fire, only set when you truly believe that the neighbors won’t see. It’s usually late, late into the evening before you can get this incendiary and dangerous relief. Houses burn this way. Clients can burn this way.
Finally, it’s the bugs. The swamp buzzes around our client’s matted hair. It stings their scarred skin and bites their tender limbs. Lice, mites and biting flies interrupt a scavenged meal and torment a sleepy soul. They infect the scratches and spread diseases. The bugs provide the annoying soundtrack to an otherwise quiet dwelling. Daylight can’t come too soon.
This is what it’s like living in a house that’s not a home.
- Mike Miller, Director of Supportive Housing PlacementView Post