[News] 4th Anniversary - Homeless and Struggling In New Orleans

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Aug 25 11:27:02 EDT 2009

Homeless and Struggling In New Orleans

On the Fourth Anniversary of Katrina, New Orleans is Still Far From Recovery

August 25, 2009 By Jordan Flaherty


Crawling through a hole in a fence and walking through an open 
doorway, Shamus Rohn and Mike Miller lead the way into an abandoned 
Midcity 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 homeless people, so they can 
offer services and support. "We joke about having turned criminal 
trespass into a fulltime job," says Rohn.

Up a darkened stairway and through the detritus of a building that 
looks like its been scavenged for anything of value to sell, 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 has 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 fulltime 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% 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.

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. Over 70% report or show signs of psychiatric 
disorders, and 42% 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 dollars," 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% 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% 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," says Mickey 
Palmer 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."

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of Left Turn Magazine, and 
a staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute.  He was the first 
writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience and 
his reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans shared a journalism award 
from New America Media. Audiences around the world have seen the 
reports he's produced for Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now. He 
can be reached at neworleans at leftturn.org.

Housing and Homelessness in New Orleans:
UNITY of Greater New Orleans - http://www.unitygno.org
Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center - http://www.gnofairhousing.org
STAND for Dignity - 

Other Resources:
Left Turn Magazine - http://www.leftturn.org
Louisiana Justice Institute - http://www.louisianajusticeinstitute.org
Justice Roars - http://louisianajusticeinstitute.blogspot.com

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