Living in a House That's Not a Home

We have a big problem in little old New Orleans.  In fact, we have 65,000 of them.  Almost four years after the federal levees failed to hold back the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is now the #1 most blighted city in America.  We have more abandoned and blighted housing than anywhere else.    Our neighborhoods are a muddled mix of newly renovated houses sitting next to molding and decaying messes.  However, I’m not an urban planner, a politician or rebuilding specialist.  I’m a social worker.  I’m not worried about the 65,000 abandoned buildings; rather I’m worried about the estimated 6,000 people who dwell in them.

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

One example of the living conditions we find in abandoned buildings

One example of the living conditions we find in abandoned buildings

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 Placement

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  • Jenna

    September 9, 2009 10:24 am

    WOW!!! I had no idea that people in the U.S. were being subjected to these type of third world living conditions. Your work is amazing!

  • Shaneena Bitanga

    September 19, 2009 1:35 pm

    I am a social work student (MSW) and I think I’d like to relocate from DC to NOLA after my program (in three to four more years) and wonder if I could adjust to this description of life or living. Would love feedback and more information on what positive actions are being taken and what more can be done.

    Thanks in advance, S.

  • Martha Kegel

    November 21, 2009 1:44 pm

    @Shaneena Bitanga
    Hi Shaneena,
    I hope you do decide to move to New Orleans! You likely will find it is the most vibrant, alive, and exciting place you have ever been, and a wonderful place to live and work! The people are warm and caring, the food is amazing, and the culture is alive at the neighborhood level. (Don’t worry — most people, and certainly not the middle class, are not living in abandoned buildings; if you love great architecture, this is a great place to buy a house.) And as a social worker, particularly if you decide to work with the poor — but even if you decide to work with middle class people with mental health issues, you will play a vital part in rebuilding this city, which is such a national treasure and well worth saving. Please keep in touch, and maybe someday we can talk you into coming to work with us!
    Martha Kegel, UNITY Executive Director

  • Termites

    January 17, 2010 12:41 am

    Makes total sense to me

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