200 people are in the school HELP! This is the graffiti I saw on top of a school building in a section of the 9th ward that flooded deeply.
This graffiti looks little like the stylized wording of taggers, and more like the haphazard distress signs of the days immediately following Katrina when communicating visually with Coast Guard choppers was the only link between thousands left behind and the rest of the world.
Throughout the school there were obvious sites of squatting. Bedrolls here, food and trash there, even a fairly new mattress dragged to the second floor.
Then our surprise: 2 young squatters sleeping in a room on the second floor. They appeared in their early twenties, and woke up as we entered the room. We offered help, they said they’re about to leave town, and we gave them business cards and said to give us a call when they change their minds or if they are unable to make it to their planned destination. We told them we’d be upstairs checking out the third floor for a while, and then we’d let ourselves out.
As we started walking down the hall to the stairway I heard Ash, the one who told us his name, state plainly “They were nice guys.”
This struck me as odd. I’m not sure what in what we did should be so odd that it struck him as nice rather than as average or normal. I considered it a fairly typical interaction with a stranger.
This reminded me that our clients are much more likely to have unpleasant interactions with strangers, often due to judgments and preconceptions held widely throughout the community.
As we left the building I could not help but juxtapose the help signal on the roof with the image of the two we just met on the second floor. 200 people sought refuge in that school; nearly four years and two months later, there are still two living there in the devastation left in Katrina’s wake.