Even by New Orleans’s forgiving standards, the church at the corner of South Derbigny Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a startling monument to decay and neglect. Once a gaudy Spanish-style structure, it was abandoned several years ago after its eccentric owner was murdered and now hovers like some creepy Stephen King creation over one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. In front stands a torchless replica of the Statue of Liberty, a pair of Mardi Gras beads dangling from her crown, while inside, a jumble of busted tiles, fire-charred debris, mold and electrical wires fill the empty rooms. An inscription etched beneath a small statue of Jesus in the main chapel promises better times to come: “Now indeed you have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice.”
This message of hope, however, did not seem to have reached the 42-year-old man who lay on a dingy foam pallet on the second floor of the church one crisp November night. Skinny and scraggly-haired, with a rumbling, freight-train cough, he gave his name as Salvador and said he had come to New Orleans a year ago to join the teams of immigrant laborers working to rebuild the city. At first he had made enough money to rent his own room, but somewhere along the way day labor had become scarce, and in October he lost his place. He had been sleeping on the floor of the church–sometimes alongside other Mexican workers, sometimes by himself, always with the rats and mice–ever since.
Salvador is part of the growing ranks of homeless men, women and children struggling to survive in New Orleans–a group that has swelled from roughly 6,000 people before Hurricane Katrina to an estimated 12,000 today (a conservative figure, according to some homeless-services providers). Like Salvador, many of these newly homeless are migrants, either from other states or other countries. But many are native New Orleanians who returned to their city only to find that rents had soared and the city’s already meager safety net had been shredded. With nowhere to sleep and few social services, they have resorted to whatever makeshift shelter they can find: abandoned houses stalked by rats, park benches patrolled by police, bushes, underpasses, cars and, until recently, a sprawling tent city that sprang up in July in front of City Hall. At its height, it had more than 250 residents.
“This is a Dickens novel that we’re dealing with right now,” said Don Thompson, executive director of the Harry Tompson Center, which is part of a consortium of Catholic groups providing some of the few daytime services to New Orleans’s homeless. “It’s like A Tale of Two Cities.”
A Tale of Two Cities or just about any chronicle of destitution and despair that was written before the rise of the welfare state. In post-Katrina New Orleans, in which every opportunity has been taken to pulverize–and then privatize–New Deal legacies like public housing and government-run social services, homelessness is the inevitable endpoint for thousands. It is the bitter past relived as an all-too-ugly present where modern-day Twists and Nicklebys make their way alongside 80-year-old men and 6-year-old girls, paranoid schizophrenics and former prison inmates, men who work three jobs, women who can’t find any jobs and, in one particularly egregious case, a 51-year-old quadriplegic veteran. When he was found by a local outreach worker, he was living beneath the I-10 overpass, his wheelchair parked beside the doubled-over comforter that served as his bed.
“Poor people just have not been the priority in this recovery,” said Martha Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans, the lead agency for a consortium of more than sixty groups working to end homelessness in the city. “And I think the fact that this situation hasn’t been treated with the urgency it deserves is exactly why we’re seeing these huge homeless camps in New Orleans, why so many people are living in abandoned buildings and why so many people are suffering in Third World conditions in the United States of America two and a half years after Katrina.”