Tag: "mental illness"
By Cain Burdeau, Associated Press
Slipping on gloves, social workers Mike Miller and Katy Quigley head in.
“Homeless outreach! Anybody home?” Miller shouts as he climbs over a balcony and up a flight of stairs.
No one’s home. But the signs of life are disturbing: A slept-on mattress, bits of food, smells of urine and feces.
It’s creepy: The upstairs apartment hasn’t been touched since Hurricane Katrina. There’s paperwork, letters, clothing, medicine bottles, a child’s stuffed animal, a Star Wars X-Wing fighter plane on the carpeted stairs.
A business card they left on the fetid mattress during their last trip is gone. That’s a good sign.
They move on.
At an abandoned 100-year-old factory, they find a few squatters. The factory has become a spot for day laborers working for temp services, restaurants, construction crews. The wages and tips, plus side tricks like collecting aluminum cans, aren’t enough to get them into an apartment since rents skyrocketed after the storm.
Quigley pauses outside a room overlooking the factory floor. “On New Year’s Day a guy was hit by a cab and killed on Claiborne and Gravier on his way to his temp job,” she says. “He lived right here.”
In a former workers’ locker room, James Bragg, a 35-year-old out-of-work carny from Illinois, is buried under blankets with his girlfriend in the dark. His left eye doesn’t blink; it’s bruised and bloodshot from being hit with a pipe.
When the carnival season ended, he said, “We come down here with about $600.” But he was robbed on Bourbon Street, and after they ate through savings living out of a hotel before they came across the factory in a downpour of rain a few months ago.
“It’s better than sleeping on sidewalks,” he says.
An ex-convict from New Orleans lives in the next room. He’s arranged his living quarters like a prison cell — neat and tidy and cold. He’s lined up hand sanitizer, hair lotion, a broken mirror to shave in, water jugs, stacked clothes — one stack for boxer shorts. A hole in the floor looks onto the ground floor, and he uses it as an outhouse.
More than five years after Katrina, New Orleans is struggling to deal with about 43,000 blighted residential properties — in various states of neglect and collapse. The city has a larger percentage of blighted properties than any other U.S. city, about a quarter of its housing stock.
And in these wastelands, an estimated 3,000 homeless find refuge every night. They are wretched people suffering from mental illness, disability or substance abuse, or simply down-on-their-luck working poor. They can be found sleeping in schools, rundown shotgun-style houses, warehouses, sprawling factories and even funeral homes and hospitals.
Any vacant place works.
UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a collaboration of 63 homeless agencies, has been running sweeps across the city every week for more than two years looking for “the sickest of sick puppies,” as Miller puts it.
“Worked someone out of there, someone out of there,” Miller says, pointing as he drives through Mid-City. “It is every neighborhood in New Orleans: People living in abandoned buildings. There’s not one neighborhood where we haven’t pulled someone out.”
Miller, a 31-year-old part-time bartender and street-smart transplant from Illinois, and Quigley, a 52-year-old mother who’s worked much of her life with the poor and homeless with HIV and AIDS, sit in the front van, smoking cigarettes. They scan the streets for homeless and swap stories about people sleeping under piers on the Mississippi River or in the shadow of the cathedral in Jackson Square. One guy fell off a 10-foot scaffolding. Another refuses offers for housing after 20 years on the streets. There was a man they found in a house who’d been drinking antifreeze for four days in an attempt to kill himself.
“Now’s he’s with Volunteers of America. It’s kind of cool. An older guy,” Miller says.
“But we haven’t found anyone dead … which is good!”
Decades of poverty, the trauma of Katrina, the economic downturn and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are a toxic socio-economic cocktail that has made the reality of dire homelessness stubbornly vivid here. With about 11,000 homeless, New Orleans has the nation’s highest number per capita, according to UNITY.
New Orleans, enjoying three solid years of growth and excited by rebuilding successes, was stunned back into its homeless crisis just after Christmas. On Dec. 28, 2010, eight squatters — a collection of train hoppers and travelers — died inside an abandoned rail-yard warehouse, asphyxiated by carbon monoxide fumes and burned when a fire they’d built to warm themselves went out of control.
“The homelessness here does seem very Third World, and that shouldn’t be happening in America in 2011,” said Martha J. Kegel, the executive director of UNITY. “I am just horrified by the magnitude of the problem.”
In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans became a laboratory for many things — urban planning, eco-friendly building, school reforms, community-driven politics, volunteerism, adaptation to a world facing global climate change.
But social workers and homeless advocates say an opportunity was missed to make New Orleans a laboratory for ending homelessness in an American city. Overnight, a majority were left homeless by Katrina, which struck on Aug. 29, 2005.
It took Congress until the summer of 2008 to give the New Orleans metro area enough money — funneled through a Department of Housing and Urban Development voucher program — to house 875 of the most vulnerable people living on the streets.
By then, tent cities had sprung up in front of City Hall and along Canal Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare.
“There was a lot of hope at the beginning (after Katrina) that since everyone had left the city, that we could prevent the recurrence of homelessness at all as people came back,” said Nan Roman, the head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Not enough was done, she said — “not what we had hoped, something like a game changer. That didn’t happen.”
Meanwhile, rebuilding programs for renters have languished, as has the construction of cheaper housing. In addition, mental health and health care services remain crippled.
“The magnitude of the problem calls for a muscular response, but that hasn’t really happened,” Kegel said.
“It’s a shame that we’re still having to do search and rescue for homeless in abandoned buildings five and a half years after the hurricane.”
And the homeless numbers are creeping back up due to the economic downturn and oil spill.
“There are a number of first-time homeless people out on the streets now, probably the most we’ve seen since Katrina,” said Stacy Horn Koch, an advocate hired last month by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to tackle homelessness.
The city gets about $15 million a year from HUD to help the homeless, and $7 million for homeless programs was made available through economic stimulus funding.
But some targeted funds are drying up. More than 500 of the 875 special HUD permanent housing vouchers have been used. Once they’re gone, a door will close on housing the most desperate.
“It’s harder and harder to get funds for the long-term recovery,” Kegel said.
The UNITY van pulls up to a boarded-up hotel where they’d discovered a couple living on a previous outing.
Kenneth J. Wilson, a sheetrock painter whose employment surged after Katrina before petering out, and Venus Green, an out-of-work nursing assistant, greet the social workers with weak smiles. They’ve been at the hotel for about a year, and she’s now pregnant.
“Before the storm, I was working, I had my own place. I was doing good,” Green, 32, says. “After the storm, I gave up.”
The UNITY team spends about a half hour with the couple filling out paperwork to help them get into housing. Quigley brings them some extra sleeping bags. The small room has no heat. Still, it kind of feels like home with photos of family next to the queen bed, an Oriental rug, an electric cooker and New Orleans Saints memorabilia hanging from a light fixture.
Green feels that a real home will set things straight. “Once I get a place to stay, it will be easier for me to get a job and stuff,” she says. “I can’t put this down for no address.”
The van moves on.
In the 8th Ward, the van parks behind the abandoned Oretha Castle Haley elementary school, named for a civil rights leader.
“Hello! Hello! Homeless outreach! UNITY! Anybody home?”
Their voices echo in pitch black stairwells, corridors and class rooms. Debris covers every floor. Chalk boards are scrawled with graffiti. The school is used by travelers like the ones killed in the warehouse fire. They’re gone now, leaving behind malt liquor cans and tobacco pouches. In a classroom, a newspaper article about the deadly warehouse fire hangs on the wall.
During the day, the UNITY crew had found a drug cooker and syringes, and also evidence of a woman living with a dog in an office. But she’s not around.
The van moves on.
They hope for better luck with a young woman they’ve been told is living in a squat next to the train tracks where the eight travelers were killed. Apparently, she was part of the group.
They park near a memorial to the fire victims. Occasionally, trains whistle.
Down the tracks, their flashlights pick out someone sleeping on the ground in an abandoned warehouse. He’s got a dog with him.
Victor Fitzsimmons is 22, from Wisconsin, and has been hopping freight cars for the past year and a half. He says he was in the Marine Corps in Iraq.
He shivers at the thought of the warehouse fire and the victims, whom he knew. “That right there,” he says, pointing, “is the grill they took inside.”
The UNITY searchers move on.
In a supermarket parking lot, they find Charles Arceneaux Jr., a 53-year-old diabetic living in a Grand Marquis car. After Katrina, his leg got infected and was amputated. The only good thing about the cold is that he doesn’t have to worry about his insulin spoiling.
“I am hoping that by the time things get really, really warm, I will be situated,” he says.
More paperwork: He’s got a good shot at housing.
The van heads to an abandoned house near St. Bernard Avenue where a pastor has told them about a man living in a Katrina-wrecked house.
It’s past midnight when they find it: Broken windows, roof in tatters, missing doors, a deadness.
A skinny, ethereal man appears out of the gloom, and beckons them to his side of the house. A fetid stench overwhelms the social workers when he opens his door. Trash covers the floors.
The 43-year-old man tells them he suffers from epilepsy and sickle-cell disease. Before the storm, he lived with an uncle in the St. Bernard public housing project, but that was razed. He says his family “is out of town right now, ever since the hurricane.”
A friend owns the house and has let him stay in it for the past two years.
Back in the van, Quigley says, “This is exactly what we’re after.” With no income, no food stamps, and no one even aware that he’s homeless, “he needs case management badly to help him survive.”
The van moves on to an abandoned house, filled with gut-wrenching filth, that they’d visited earlier.
Miller tries the door, but it’s locked from the inside. He peers through a broken window and sees a shape on the floor.
“This is Mike from UNITY.”
“I heard ya. Go away!” a man groans back, wasted.
“You want me to come back tomorrow. What time?”
“In the afternoon, man, leave me alone.”
“Who’m I asking for? Can I leave a card? OK? Who’m I leaving a card for?” Silence. “OK, my man, I’m going to put it in the door for ya. You alright for now?”
The man doesn’t answer.
For tonight, the search and rescue comes to an end.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.View Post
by Lesley Simpson / Eyewitness News
Posted on January 23, 2011 at 1:47 PM
The homeless situation in New Orleans appears to be a growing challenge, with more people on the streets and limited spaces in local shelters to accommodate them.
The issue becomes a special concern on nights when the weather is so dangerously cold that the city issues a freeze plan to make more spaces available in local shelters.
The city of New Orleans’ new Director of Neighborhood Services, Stacy Horn Koch who is the city’s homeless coordinator, the Executive Director of The New Orleans Mission, Linda Gonzalez, and the Executive Director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, Martha Kegel sit down with Dennis to discuss how and why the homeless issue is changing, and what should be done about it.View Post
August 24, 2010
The Abandoned Buildings Outreach Team of UNITY of Greater New Orleans has released a detailed report of the Team’s findings and recommendations from 18 months of combing the city’s abandoned buildings in search of elderly and disabled survivors of Hurricane Katrina, “Search and Rescue Five Years Later: Saving People Still Trapped in Katrina’s Ruins.”
Thus far, the team has found 154 people, nearly all disabled Katrina victims, living in abandoned buildings without electricity or running water — most with unrepaired flood damage, often with gaping holes in the walls and roofs. New Orleans presently has over 55,000 abandoned commercial and residential buildings – the highest rate of abandoned buildings in the nation, and searches of abandoned buildings on random samples of census blocks indicates at least 3,000 people are living in these conditions.View Post
Published: Sunday, December 26, 2010, 1:22 AM
By Letters to the Editor
Misunderstanding persists about the Esplanade Avenue building that UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization, and our partners are seeking to revitalize.
We plan to transform the former Bethany nursing home, abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, into apartments for low-wage workers and formerly homeless people with disabilities. Tenants with disabilities will benefit from on-site supportive services, and the neighborhood will benefit from a well-lit, well-maintained building with 24/7 security.
The need for high-quality affordable housing is great in a city where fair market rents are 45 percent higher than before Katrina, there is a plethora of low-wage jobs and homelessness is nearly double what it was pre-storm.
Why are we seeking to revitalize this particular building in this particular neighborhood? Because the former owners of the nursing home contacted UNITY in 2008, while we were re-housing hundreds of people from homeless camps, and asked us to acquire the building to help meet the need for housing. HUD provided the building at low cost to house the homeless.
We recognize the importance of integrating the poor and vulnerable throughout the city. The five properties we are planning to develop into mixed-income apartment buildings are located in five different, diverse neighborhoods.
We are committed to re-housing and stabilizing vulnerable people who have no place to live by using proven best practices. We are equally committed to doing everything possible to be good neighbors and help improve neighborhoods. We ask for the community’s support as we work together to end homelessness and rebuild a safe, equitable and inclusive New Orleans.
Public Policy Director
UNITY of Greater New Orleans
© 2011 NOLA.com. All rights reserved.View Post
I fully expect to one day be tapped on the shoulder, turn my head and have my face meet the clenched fist of Ms. Gwendolyn. It would be justified. As a mental health professional, I’ll take one for all the social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, LPC’s, psych tech, pharmacists, case managers, outreach workers and administrators who play in my sand box. After all, mental health is a team sport. At this point, Ms. Gwendolyn would have a pretty good reason.
Ms. Gwendolyn doesn’t know me. She knows my yellow shirt. She knows my blue van. Hopefully, she’s never connected the two with her forced institutionalization, with the hours strapped to a hospital bed in four-point restraints and the syringes of generic Thorazine the nurses periodically inject into her arm. I’ve put Ms. Gwendolyn in the hospital four times now under an Order of Protective Custody (OPC). It’s a psychiatric hold used to get gravely disabled people into a hospital to be evaluated for care, to get them in the system.
My first meeting with Ms. Gwen was a hot August afternoon more than three years ago. In the devastation of Post-Katrina New Orleans, Ms. Gwen decided that she needed to collect all her belongings and start camping in a card board box. It was this card board box, affixed with religious paraphernalia, trinkets scavenged from slimy garbage bins and left over food containers that provided her base for religious worship. She spent her days running in and out of traffic pontificating to the startled drivers and periodically dropping to her knees in religious ecstasy. She relieved herself in old pickle jars which were immediately placed on a shelf. She had dozens of them. Ironically, her box was placed in front of a shuttered mental health clinic. The irony was not lost on me.
Through the years, I’ve watched Ms. Gwen cycle through the mental health system. Her quarterly trips to the hospital, the inappropriate, unethical and unprofessional discharges culminating in her homelessness. I’d find her months later clearly psychotic and OPC her again. I’m tired. She’s tired. The system’s tired.
Last Thursday I encountered Ms. Gwen again. Her psychotic ramblings where tagged on a telephone pole and she was tap dancing in traffic again. Before I even got the OPC, I set the plan in motion. I was going to make sure she got to psych ward from the emergency room and I was going to connect with the psych social worker before she even arrived. I set up her discharge plan into housing with the most intense mental health case management the system has to offer before she even made it off the Crisis Unit Van. I connected with her psychiatrist. I phoned the nurses. I would have sent a cake but the bakery was closed. Ms. Gwen even had a clinic appointment before they peeled off her greasy clothes off and put her in a hospital gown, before they even removed the silver baby shoes dangling from her matted hair. My plan was some of the sexiest social work you can do. Textbook. No way to fail. Ms. Gwen will finally get the help she needs and so desperately deserves.
How did it end? The hospital failed to fill out some administrative paperwork and had to legally release her while her OPC expired. Last night, at seven o’clock in the evening, Ms. Gwen could be found standing in the same hospital gown waiting for the streetcar to take her to her next delusion. The institutional green paper gown wet from a cold November rain showering.
Either I have to dig a semi-medicated, psychotic woman out of the streets of New Orleans again or I have to start wearing a mouth guard to work. At this point I think I’m going for the mouth guard.View Post
AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE • September 2010
While progress has been made, New Orleans still suffers from a lack of affordable housing
BY DONNA KIMURA
NEW ORLEANS—A few bare walls and broken doors separate Mike Miller from the unknown.
“Hey guys, you home?” he calls out while standing outside a desperate looking building. “It’s Mike from Unity.”
When he gets no answer, Miller, Shamus Rohn, and Katy Quigley walk to the other side of the property to find an open entrance. Armed with only flashlights, they make their way through the dark, empty building.
“Homeless outreach,” says Rohn, raising his voice to make his presence as well as his reason for being inside known.
No one answers as the trio moves through the large commercial building. They think it may have once been a meat plant, but it’s hard to tell in the dark and hard to know when so many buildings in New Orleans sit empty.
In the back, they find tidy bedrolls and other signs that someone has been living inside. A picture of a dog has been fastened to a stark wall, a small attempt to make the place home.
It’s about 10 p.m., and the squatters are not around. The team members make a note to check back another time, and when they do catch up with them, they will lend a sympathetic ear, try to find them appropriate housing, and offer any assistance that they can.
UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofi t working with New Orleans’ homeless, has taken the bold step of sending workers into the city’s abandoned buildings at night to reach the homeless who are hidden from view.
“No other American city is dealing with anything on this scale,” says Martha Kegel, Unity’s executive director. “We’ve got over 60,000 abandoned residential and commercial properties, and our most conservative estimate is there are about 3,000 people living in them.”
The saddest part is that most of the people that Unity is finding were stably housed before Hurricane Katrina and its toxic floodwaters ruined their homes and defiled their city.
Unity workers have rescued a man in mid-suicide and discovered a group of seniors, the oldest 90, living in an abandoned garage with holes in the roof.
“The search and rescue from Katrina, five years later, is still not finished,” says Kegel.
Double the homeless
Kegel easily pulls numbers and facts about the city’s homeless and affordable housing from memory. An attorney, she ran a legal services project for the homeless before taking over Unity’s top post in 2003. She was preparing to adopt a baby and thought the job change would provide her a more regular schedule. It is a rare case where she was wrong. The last few years have been anything but normal.
Before Katrina, there were about 6,300 homeless individuals on any given night in New Orleans. Today, the homeless population is estimated to be nearly double that at 11,500, including people in transitional housing and those about to be evicted from their homes or discharged from institutions with no place to go. Charity Hospital and many of the outreach centers that served the poor and mentally ill remain closed.
In the years right after Katrina, large homeless camps emerged around the city. The leaders of Unity and its collaborative organizations, who aren’t easily shocked, were horrified as camps grew in size each week. If homelessness were measured like hurricanes, it would have been a Category 5.
“Our social workers drew a line in the sand and said we’re not going to let this happen to our most vulnerable neighbors and we’re not going to let this happen to our city,” says Kegel. “We’re not going to let this become the new normal.”
Unity housed 457 people in eight months on sheer adrenaline, she says. Now, they have a more daunting challenge of scouring abandoned buildings for the homeless. About 98 percent of the people they find have a significant disability; 27 percent are women. Nearly all are happy to see the Unity workers. They’ve been waiting years for someone to come by and help, says Kegel.
On the same muggy June night, Rohn, Miller, and Quigley search one desolate building after another, making their way across shaky floors, over discarded building materials, and through puddles of water left by a heavy morning rain. They find mattresses, shoes, beer cans, and other signs that people have been around.
They stop at a school that was something back in its day but is now a skeleton of what it once was.
About two hours after visiting the first building of the evening, Rohn is driving through a quiet neighborhood when Miller spots someone entering a house that was believed to be empty. They double back and meet a soft-spoken man who has lived in New Orleans his entire life. The house belonged to his dead uncle, he tells them.
Standing on the porch, the workers gather the information they need to begin a case and provide him the help that he may need. The man lets the strangers look inside the home. In the front room near the door, two men sleep undisturbed. They work during the day and rest at the house in the evening.
Before their long night is through, the Unity workers drive to another brokendown house with “gas off” painted on the front. Inside, Rohn finds two more men.
Demand vs. supply
Many in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast are eager to share the progress made in the five years since Hurricane Katrina, and there have been major accomplishments. Nearly 250 new or rehabilitated developments financed with Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) have been placed in service throughout the Gulf Coast.
Another outcome has been an increased level of interest in housing policy, with state and local governments wanting a greater role in the housing discussion, says Evelyn Brown, senior vice president and manager of the Gulf program at the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC).
Still, few can say enough has been done, and there’s concern that money will run out and public interest will ebb when a large amount of work is still left.
The 2005 storms damaged more than a million housing units in the Gulf Coast region. In New Orleans alone, 134,000 housing units—70 percent of all occupied units—suffered damage, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
The center estimates that there is a lack of affordable housing or subsidies for at least 20,019 households in New Orleans.
Housing production isn’t nearly enough to meet this demand, with 7,754 federally subsidized units in the pipeline as of last October, mostly LIHTC units, and another 2,666 units in the planning stages, according to Housing Production Needs: Three Scenarios for New Orleans, a report issued by the center and The Urban Institute last fall.
“The biggest obstacle for developers has been the massive scale of this disaster,” says Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
In other disasters like a tornado, communities see a few neighborhoods damaged while other areas remain intact. That was far from the case in 2005.
“Entire neighborhoods were impacted, and it took months for many homeowners or businesses to return to assess the damage,” says Landrieu. “In general, we have also had to deal with lower population levels in some areas, which have created recovery challenges for businesses and developers operating in these areas.”
She cites how in St. Bernard and Orleans parishes in Louisiana, from 2005 to 2006, the population fell by approximately 78 percent and 54 percent, respectively; and the number of small businesses declined by 40 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
Now, as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, many of the same areas face further obstacles to their recovery, says Landrieu.
Jack-o’-lantern effect A few months before the fifth anniversary of the storm and levee breaks, the city is a riddle, with time seeming to move at different speeds depending on where you stand. Some parts of New Orleans are forging ahead while other parts are frozen in time. Rebuilt homes sit next to empty lots that sit next to boarded-up houses still bearing the tattoos painted by rescue teams.
This patchwork is known as the jack-o’- lantern effect, says Liza Cowan, a program officer for community revitalization at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which is in the midst of a five-year, $25 million housing initiative.
She drives through the city, pointing out key affordable housing projects that have risen since the storm and others that are under construction.
Much of the planned recovery was based on a 2005 economy, but the national recession dealt a big blow to the efforts. Developments using LIHTCs, the nation’s biggest affordable housing production program, took longer to close while others lost their investors. Environmental and other issues took longer to sort.
Although there’s been a good deal of progress, a new visitor would be struck by how much work there’s still left to do, admits Fred Tombar, senior adviser to Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan.
“It speaks to just how severe and impactful the damage of Katrina and Rita was,” the New Orleans native says, adding that it’s hard to have a litmus test for where the recovery efforts should be when nothing like Katrina has ever occurred.
The block where Tombar grew up has yet to fully recover. He recently saw a school bus make its way through a familiar neighborhood and read it as a sign of life returning to normal.
One of the biggest challenges for affordable housing developers right now is the looming deadline for projects fi- nanced with GO Zone credits, according to Tombar. An estimated 6,000 affordable units are in jeopardy of missing the Jan. 1, 2011, placed-in-service deadline.
Donovan has been working with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to get Congress to extend the deadline to give stalled projects a shot at being built.
Another HUD priority is to move from recovery to revitalization, says Tombar. “Will there be parks for the kids in the complex to play in, grocery stores for residents to shop in, lasting jobs that people can rely on to meet the rent demand?” he asks. “Those are the things we’ve been focusing on.”
Since taking office in 2009, Donovan’s team has taken key steps in the Gulf, including moving people into the Sec. 8 housing voucher program and being assertive about where Community Development Block Grants are directed, says Sheila Crowley, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
At the same time, she’s quick to point out that public housing remains largely missing in the city and other affordable housing has yet to be rebuilt. Recent reports showed 958 families in Louisiana and another 197 in Mississippi still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, with advocates convinced the Mississippi number is actually higher, says Crowley.
Advocates say the answer is more affordable housing.
A number of familiar names have stepped up their efforts. Habitat for Humanity has built 302 homes since Katrina, including Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward. The group was building just 10 houses a year before the hurricane but now has a goal of 50 a year.
LISC and Enterprise have opened offices in New Orleans. Volunteers of America, which had a big presence in the city with more than 1,000 units before Katrina, is busy rebuilding many of the units it lost and is one of the most active developers. New Orleans-based HRI Properties, a specialist in adaptive-reuse projects, has done about 10 deals since the storms.
McCormack Baron Salazar, a national firm that specializes in rebuilding urban neighborhoods, and Atlanta-based Columbia Residential are involved in two of the Big Four public housing redevelopments.
New developers have also entered the scene. The Domain Cos., led by Tulane University friends Matt Schwartz and Chris Papamichael, has built three prominent mixed-income properties in Mid- City. Providence Community Housing, a faith-based nonprofit has risen in the wake of Katrina to build several projects, and Realtex Development Corp. out of Austin, Texas, has completed nine developments in Mississippi in the last five years.
Still, there’s more affordable housing that needs to be built and more low-income families that need to be housed. Just then maybe Unity workers can end their search.View Post
“Hey UNITY, I’m waiting for you!!!”
These are the words shouted from the front porch of a shotgun double in Central City as we drove past in the van this afternoon. The man shouting them yells them nearly verbatim whenever he sees us. We’ve met him before. We’ve explained that, as he has an apartment, we cannot open a case on him because – and this shocks some people – we work with homeless people. I realize that words have multiple definitions, but this man does not seem to understand that without committing fraud there is no way that I can count him as meeting the definition of homeless given his apartment with cable television and window A/C units. I’ve explained this twice.
And yes, I understand that he wants to move out of his house and into a more affordable place in a nicer and safer neighborhood. If I lived in that section of Jackson Avenue, I’d want to move, too. But this is what often amazes me about the human condition, and what occasionally rattles my faith that humans can be objective and in some way able to legitimately compare their circumstances to the circumstances of others: this man just doesn’t seem to understand that there are people worse off, and so much worse off that they qualify for special programs based on their utterly deplorable deprivation.
I wonder whether he would finally understand this if he had been in the van with me for my next stop. I went to go see a man we call by the name of the town he was born in. For anonymity’s sake, I’ll call him Lafayette.
Lafayette has been on the streets of New Orleans since before Hurricane Katrina. For a few years he told me and my co-workers that he was doing okay and that there were other people who needed our help more than he did. For whatever reason, I finally talked him into accepting my help about two months ago. I’ve been pushing his case ever since.
Last week we finally got his psychiatric disorder diagnosed and documented, and Mike completed his application for Permanent Supportive Housing. I got the final signature from Lafayette at 3:21pm on Friday, and told him it should go through for approval for the housing program this past Monday. On Friday I expected that we would be able to refer 20 people this week. Unfortunately, that number turned out to be only 5. So 15 got left out in the cold (actually, it’s pretty temperate here right now) for at least another week.
So I went to tell Lafayette the bad news that he was one of those 15. He damn near lost it right then and there. He spent all weekend walking up and down streets looking for apartments. Normally, he does not leave his spot for fear of losing his possessions, but he told me that while he was walking around with dreams of an apartment in his head, “some asshole stole my bike.”
“What do I have to do? Commit suicide to get housed?”
I informed him that if he committed suicide I definitely would not be able to get him housed, but that if he was seriously considering it I needed to get him to a hospital. He informed Mike and I that he had no intention or plan of harming himself or anyone else.
Then something important happened: he opened up a little more than he had in conversations past. I knew that when Katrina happened he was briefly in a witness protection program related to a murder that he saw in the summer of 2005. I also know that the case fell apart due to evidence lost in Katrina, and he was put out of the witness protection program only to return to the exact same overpass. So I inquired: “Hey, tell me a little bit more about that murder.”
“I see it every day.” I suspected something like this was true, but he’d never said so. While witnessing the murder didn’t cause his homelessness, it is clear that his mental stability was further compromised by the incident. But in past meetings he has refused to talk about the murder outside of explaining why he was housed for only 6-weeks out of the past 6 years – if you can testify in a capitol murder case, the DA will pony up some rent assistance; when the case falls apart, the pony gallops away and you’re back on your own.
So he described a murder in frightening detail. He talked about how the cab screeched to a halt and indicated a place less than a block from where he still sleeps. He saw a man and a woman get out of the back, and the driver stumble out of the front. He saw the man shove the driver down. He saw the woman grab a 2×4 and go to work. He said the worst thing about it was that she did it in the cold clinical manner of a doctor performing surgery – “just doing a job” were his words – as if it was nothing. He told me how the people who did it walked over to him afterward and threatened him to keep his mouth shut. Then he described his conscience getting the better of him, walking over to the man who was beaten, hearing the blood gurgle in his throat and then running to find a police officer for help.
He relives this every day.
Approval of his housing application this week was supposed to be the first good thing to happen in his life in the last six years. He had hope and smiled for the first time when I got that final signature from him last Friday afternoon.
That hope is gone. I pleaded with him to trust me that I’d do everything in my power to make sure his application is approved this coming week. But that’s still another week he is going to call this overpass home with the cab driver’s ghost choking on its own blood only 200-yards away every night.
And the man on the porch with the cable and the A/C units is angry that I’m not helping him. Maybe if I could let him watch this murder in first person and threaten him with watching it every day for the rest of his life, he’d finally understand. Maybe if he spent one night trying to shut out the roar of the cars on the bridge over head and sleep, wondering whether those two people that killed that cab driver right over there are still out there, whether they might decide to come back… well, just maybe he would understand.
by Shamus Rohn
August 24, 2010
Only five nights ago, we met Max in an abandoned house in the Mid City neighborhood of New Orleans. The house has not been touched since flooding from Hurricane Katrina as evidenced by the water marks and mold on the un-gutted walls.
Max is 42, is living in one of the 55,000 buildings still abandoned nearly five years after the floodwaters receded. When my co-worker Katy and I met him, we told him we’d do everything in our power to get him into permanent housing. We also explained it could take a long time.
Max has been homeless, as have thousands of others, since their lives were turned upside down by Katrina and the levee failures. Max reported that he has been homeless since returning to New Orleans approximately one year following Katrina – that was nearly 4 years ago. He’s been in this particular abandoned house for two years.
I’m not surprised that Max is crying today. Despite denying having any mental health or substance abuse problems on the night I met him, he appears to struggle with both. On follow-up questions, he reported having been hospitalized a year ago for being suicidal. His flat affect would concur with a diagnosis ranging from MDD to severe PTSD as he frequently relives his experiences struggling in the deadly floodwaters, waking from terrible nightmares.
He also reports accessing the emergency room regularly when the pains in his stomach get too severe. He says he has a torn lining in his stomach from when he “used to drink a lot more” than the three beers a day he currently consumes.
But he’s never had a follow-up appointment at a clinic related to the psychiatric hospitalization. He can’t afford the prescriptions that are supposed to take care of his stomach. I’d say self-medication via Olde English is far from the most severe of his problems.
Unfortunately, Max is not at all unique in a city that has an estimated 3,000-plus abandoned building dwellers. Even among the 11 new faces I encountered last week while climbing into abandoned buildings in the middle of the night, Max is hardly the most fragile.
When will we be able to house Max? I hope soon, but I fear it could take many months or even years given the staffing and resources we have compared to the size of the homeless problem we face.
I can’t justify pushing his case for a Permanent Supportive Housing slot ahead of the woman I met the night before in her late 50’s with full-blown psychosis, mental retardation, and a drinking issue worse than his. Nor can I ethically push it ahead of the 61-year old man sharing his squat, who has more severe psychiatric and medical conditions and just as much time living on the streets.
The hard fact: there are hundreds of others in even worse shape who languish on our registry of disabled homeless people waiting to be housed.
Here’s hoping that Max and all of the others I’ve met in the last year and a half of doing abandoned building outreach don’t get lost during the wait or, worse, die homeless as many of our clients have — before we are able to get them into clean, decent and safe housing in which they might start to heal themselves and their lives.
HRC Guest Blogger Shamus Rohn, M.A., is director of the Abandoned Buildings Outreach Project at UNITY of Greater New Orleans. He conducts outreach with people living in New Orleans’ abandoned buildings.View Post
August 26, 2010
NEW ORLEANS – For the past year and a half, the non-profit group UNITY of Greater New Orleans has sent search teams into the more than 55,000 abandoned buildings around the city. They estimate that as many as 6,000 homeless people are living in Katrina’s ruins. Seventy-five percent of the abandoned-building dwellers are Katrina survivors, and the vast majority suffer from mental illness and/or physical disabilities.
Yet one of the search team members, Shamus Rohn, can see a silver lining.
“If this is a place where homelessness doubles, five years still, following Hurricane Katrina, and people are still coming back, maybe that means there’s something really special about New Orleans that still is attracting people.”
The group calls for increased funding for mental health services, shelters and caseworkers, as well as increased assistance for middle- and low-income homeowners who are still laboring to rebuild houses.
The search teams found that the people who are still, in effect, “trapped” in the ruins of Katrina are older, more frequently disabled and sicker than the average homeless, Rohn says.
“Eighty-seven percent of the people we’re meeting have at least one disability; 78 percent have a mental illness; 57 percent have a physical disability – that’s compared to a national average of 40 percent of homeless who have a single disability.”
He warns that the Crescent City must move carefully with its ongoing recovery.
“A lot of people want to tear down blighted buildings, and I entirely understand that. But if we move forward with eradicating blight without taking care of those who are currently inhabiting those buildings, we’re going to end up with large encampments on the street again.”
With its 55,000 abandoned buildings, New Orleans is now the most blighted city in America, according to the study.
Mark Scheerer/Deb Courson, Public News Service – NYView Post
Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune
Published: Wednesday, August 25, 2010, 6:00 AM
Carrie Morgan Handy, 63, lived in a mold-ridden cinderblock house in the 9th Ward for three years, until she was discovered a few months ago by caseworkers from UNITY of Greater New Orleans, who routinely search the city for squatters.
Handy, who was stranded on the roof of her nearby apartment for two days after Hurricane Katrina, returned to the city with her older brother. Faced with high rents and little income, they moved into the vacant house on Laussat Place, covering holes in the walls with plastic campaign signs and making do without electricity or reliable plumbing. The house, which sits on a particularly bleak block choked by weeds and vacant buildings, wasn’t theirs, but it was shelter in the neighborhood where they’d grown up.
The siblings are part of a disproportionate number of sick and elderly living in blighted buildings since Katrina, according to a UNITY report released Tuesday. Nearly two years ago on a freezing-cold night, UNITY caseworkers found Porter Powell, 90, squatting with 11 other homeless people in a vacant Central City mechanic’s garage with no water or electricity.
“It was then that we decided we had to do this on a full-time basis,” said Martha Kegel, UNITY’s director.
From street-level, building-by-building surveys conducted over the past two years in 500 randomly chosen census blocks, UNITY estimates that between 3,000 and 6,000 people are part of this invisible homeless population.
Squatters are distinctly different than the typical homeless person. Those who are older and more sickly avoid the hubbub of traditional homeless shelters, preferring to hole up in vacant homes in familiar areas. Compared with the overall homeless population, squatters are four times more likely to be elderly and twice as likely to have a physical or mental disabliity, according to UNITY data.
Within the city’s blighted buildings, caseworkers have found squatters who are blind, missing limbs, in wheelchairs and suffering with untreated seizure disorders.
The city’s homeless population doubled after Katrina, partly because of a hole in the city’s safety net, caused by displaced “aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors who once helped look after the most vulnerable elderly and disabled people in the community,” Kegel said.
The report released Tuesday calls for increased funding for case workers, homeless shelters and mental health services, as well as more assistance for moderate and low-income homeowners still trying to repair their houses.
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3396View Post