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.”
Or, at least, why one segment of the city is suffering in such hardscrabble conditions. For another swath of the city–for the New Orleans of Garden District doyennes, booze-happy tourists and moneyed speculators–life has all but returned to jazzy normal. Each night, this New Orleans swings within the decadent fortress of the French Quarter. It simmers amid the mix of old and new restaurants that tempt diners with even more culinary options than they had before the storm–900 in all! And late at night, it slumbers soundly in the occasional luxury apartment building.
Indeed, just this month Donald Trump and his partners announced that they have begun selling units in the Trump International Hotel and Tower New Orleans, a 70-story colossus of glass and garishness that is expected to rise over the city’s central business district. Billed as the “number one address for elegant living” and the tallest building in the city, it dwarfs in scale–and certainly in price–any single multifamily affordable housing development attempted thus far.
“It is five-star, the top of the line,” boasted Irene Rand, director of sales for the Trump “condotel,” which, she said, will offer some 725 hotel suites and condominiums starting at $400,000.
Back among New Orleans’s dispossessed, life on the streets has turned increasingly ruthless. Overnight, working men and women who have always lived with roofs over their heads have found themselves sleeping with the stars and fire ants, while the most vulnerable–those with chronic mental illnesses or addiction disorders–have fallen deeper into the ravine of homelessness, with fewer ways out. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency evicts some 6,400 residents from Louisiana’s remaining FEMA trailer parks this spring, the problem will likely get worse.
For many, the most glaring reason for their homelessness has been the persistent shortage of affordable rental housing in a city that was once a renters’ town. Before Hurricane Katrina, more than half of all New Orleans residents rented their homes. But since the flood destroyed some 52,000 units of rental housing, fair-market rents have ballooned an average of 46 percent, floating right out of many working people’s grasp.
Suddenly the fair-market rate for efficiencies shot up from $522 a month to $764, while the rate for one-bedrooms jumped from $578 to $846, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Meanwhile, advocates and renters report that many of the more affordable apartments have nearly doubled in price–and not because they’ve been gussied up. As one frustrated apartment seeker said, these houses are still the same bug-infested dumps as before the hurricane–utilities (which have also skyrocketed) not included.
“Rent’s gone up sky-high since the storm,” said Kimberly Barrow, a 22-year-old single working mother who spent nearly a year hopping among friends’ houses and a shack in someone’s backyard before finding temporary housing through Hope House, a small nonprofit. “So we was bouncing. I felt like a ball, from house to house to house.”
The federal government might easily have stepped in to ease people’s suffering, either instituting rent controls–as every advocate and service provider interviewed for this article suggested–or providing far heftier incentives than it actually did for developers to rehabilitate affordable rental housing.
Instead, Congress and the Bush Administration did much the opposite. Rather than pour money into restoring New Orleans’s devastated rental housing stock, Congress channeled 85 percent of all Road Home program funds to homeowners–a far more “desirable” demographic than renters–leaving a paltry 15 percent to rehab rental housing. At the same time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) chose to bulldoze some 4,500 relatively unscathed public housing apartments. The result is that the funds allocated by Washington’s recovery gurus to rebuild the Gulf area are expected to restore only 43 percent of Louisiana’s rental apartments–and only 37 percent of the city’s most affordable rental housing, according to PolicyLink, a national advocacy group promoting social and economic justice.
“Homeowners have really been prioritized over renters,” said Annie Clark, a PolicyLink program associate who helped produce several reports on the New Orleans housing crisis. “But also, in general, there has not been enough money to rebuild housing in New Orleans or the Gulf region.”
As for local leaders, they have sometimes seemed less interested in resettling the poorest Katrina survivors than in finding ways to keep them out of their neighborhoods. In numerous instances, from eastern New Orleans to Westwego, elected officials have pushed bans on building multifamily apartment complexes–measures that would effectively freeze poor, often African-American renters out of those ZIP codes. In fact, in one particularly revealing instance, the lily-white St. Bernard Parish passed a “blood-relative” ordinance in 2006, which made it illegal for single-family homeowners to rent to anyone who wasn’t a member of the same near-and-dear gene pool. It was only after the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center filed a lawsuit accusing the parish of discrimination that it agreed to suspend the ordinance.
Nor is affordable housing the only necessity that’s evaporated since the storm. Basic social programs have also gone the way of Katrina’s 145 mile-per-hour winds, turning New Orleans’s historically flimsy safety net into a doily.
A case in point: before the storm, New Orleans–which has never had anything resembling a department of homeless services, let alone a publicly supported shelter system (the shelters are mostly run by churches)–limped by with some 2,800 shelter beds, of which only 837 served as emergency (as opposed to long-term or transitional) placements. Now the total number of shelter beds has fallen to roughly 2,045, the number of emergency beds to 505, and yet homelessness has doubled. Some of the shelters, like the Salvation Army, even charge a fee.
As for mental health and detox services, forget it. With the shuttering of the city’s storied Charity Hospital and the scattering of its therapist class, spontaneous self-healing seems to be many needy New Orleanians’ best hope. “We have so many people right now who have mental health issues, and there’s no mental health services available. A lot of these people are self-medicating, and it’s just snowballing,” said Clarence Adams, the assistant administrator of the Ozanam Inn, one of New Orleans’s four major homeless shelters.
Like the flooding of New Orleans itself, the city’s homeless crisis is not something that just happened. It’s a man-made catastrophe, in this case a crystallization of the many manufactured ravages of the “rebuilding” effort–from poor planning and incompetence to the gutting of the New Deal and especially perhaps the planned “upscaling” of the city.
From the very beginning, the city’s business and political elites, along with their friends in Washington, have treated the rebuilding effort as a grand experiment in social re-engineering–a chance to landscape the city with a different “demographic.” “Only the best [public housing] residents should return,” declared HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson in April 2006. It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by everyone from local businessmen to 504Cracka, a commenter on the Times-Picayune website, whose suggestion for solving homelessness was gleefully cruel: “Move them to Park Island,” he (or she) said, referring to an upscale island neighborhood where Mayor Ray Nagin lives.
It’s no wonder so many homeless have concluded that they are being reconstructed right out of New Orleans. “If you want my honest opinion, I think that New Orleans is trying to eliminate the people–and the black population–from coming back home,” said Raymond Tony Batiste, secretary of Homeless Pride, the grassroots group of homeless people that gave birth to the encampment in front of City Hall. “They don’t want these people to be able to afford to live here.”
Batiste offered this insight as he sat one afternoon in the square in front of City Hall, a patch of trees, grass and garbage that looked remarkably like a modern-day Hooverville but is actually known as Duncan Plaza. All around him, the red humps of tents and bare hides of mattresses blotted the landscape, while ragged men and weary women wandered about after a hard day of minimum-wage work or simply surviving. Some of them had been drawn there largely out of an instinct of self-preservation, a sense that it was safer to sleep among the many than the few. But for others it was an act of protest. They called it a movement.
“Our mission is to end homelessness in New Orleans and to make a difference,” said Batiste, who like many Duncan Plaza dwellers had never been homeless before the storm. “Because we’re not homeless by choice. We’re homeless because we cannot afford what’s going on after Katrina.” At the time Batiste uttered these words, he and Homeless Pride were entering their fifth month in Duncan Plaza. The encampment had sprung up on July 4, 2007, when a handful of the city’s homeless staged an overnight protest that then stretched from days into months and became one of the most visible symbols of the homeless crisis. Throughout the many months that it festered in front of Mayor Ray Nagin’s office, however, few members of the city’s leadership seemed to notice.
“We say, Hey, Ray, What do you say? We need housing today!” chanted Batiste, re-enacting one of his favorite protest cries. “But he never shows up.”
Batiste never did get his wish. Instead, most of the help that trickled into the encampment arrived in the form of nonprofits like Unity of Greater New Orleans, which launched a massive campaign to house all of Duncan Plaza’s homeless between Thanksgiving and Christmas. At the time, Unity did not actually have the funds to carry out this campaign–these funds, which had been allocated as part of the Road Home program, were tied up in the Kafkaesque-sounding Office of Contractual Review–but the agency decided to make the push anyway. The impending winter weather supplied the initial incentive. But a second unholy shove came when the state government announced in early December that it was going to cordon off the area and roust all the homeless. The excuse: the demolition of two nearby government buildings (for which the state had not yet obtained demolition permits).
“In some ways it was kind of like a refugee airlift with people begging to get onto the vans going to the hotels,” said Kegel, the Unity director, of the monthlong effort to place 249 Duncan Plaza dwellers in hotels, followed by permanent housing.
Down in New Orleans, the evacuation quickly made headlines as the first time so many homeless had been moved so quickly into temporary housing–a feat made all the more astonishing because it was done peacefully, without a marauding horde of police in riot gear. Even more miraculous, the state agreed to begin releasing $3.8 million in Road Home money it owed Unity, and the city joined in with a pledge to donate $260,000.
For Kegel, a no-nonsense woman with a wry laugh, the lesson was obvious: when government decides (or is persuaded) to collaborate with nonprofits, people get roofs over their heads. “The incredible success of the Duncan Plaza evacuation would never have been possible without government,” she said. “It showed the power of what a modest but significant infusion of government resources partnered with incredibly dedicated nonprofits can do.”
Although that’s true enough in the narrowest sense, the full story of the rebuilding effort offers a far less forgiving portrait of post-Katrina social policy. In this postdiluvian reality, nonprofits, not government, often do the heavy lifting. They find homes for the homeless, manage their cases and often front the money for the whole operation while public agencies dither and dawdle.
This unhappy two-step between needy nonprofits and lumbering government agencies has been one of the most persistent narratives of post-storm life. It began as early as two weeks after the flood, when HUD’s regional office froze $11.4 million worth of funds to its New Orleans grant recipients, a mistake for which it eventually apologized. Later, the agency refused to give homeless-services organizations permission to pay for repairs to their flooded and storm-thrashed buildings using their regular HUD grants. In fact, until recently, the entity that had given most generously to help the New Orleans homeless recover from the flood was the government of Qatar, which donated $2 million in 2006 to help restore the aforementioned damaged buildings. (In fairness, HUD did provide organizations with some staff support and equipment early on.)
Even now, a $70 million measure that could provide “permanent supportive housing” to 3,000 elderly and disabled homeless New Orleanians remains suspended in the priority-addled murk of Congress. Permanent supportive housing is an elegant hybrid innovation that offers tenants a mix of affordable housing and on-site social services and is widely recognized as the best tactic for keeping poor people with disabilities housed and stable. Louisiana’s Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, understood this when she introduced the proposal as an amendment to an emergency spending bill in the summer of 2006. So did her Senate colleagues who, in a rare act of bipartisanship, supported it.
But during the back-and-forth of conference committee negotiations, House members booted the measure from the bill. As one source with knowledge of the discussions suggested, some of these committee members felt that New Orleans had already been provided with a handsome chunk of money in the bill and didn’t need the extra infusion. (In fact, the money fell short and had to be supplemented with an extra $3 billion.) Other committee members simply didn’t grasp the concept of permanent supportive housing.
Eighteen months later the measure has yet to make its way out of legislative purgatory, despite the ongoing efforts of both Landrieu and advocates as well as the full support of the Louisiana delegation. Even the state’s two ranking conservatives, Senator David Vitter and Governor Bobby Jindal, have given it their blessing. All of which raises the possibility that, as in the days after the flood, when New Orleans’s poor and desperate died waiting for help, the city’s ill and elderly homeless might be better off waiting for Sean Penn to paddle by and rescue them than for government to do the right thing.
Senator Landrieu has vowed to keep pushing her colleagues. “I have been fighting for almost two years to get the funding,” she said through a spokesperson, “and have been assured by Senate leadership that we will be able to include these funds in the next supplemental appropriations bill.” No doubt this will be welcome news to many. But even so, one has to wonder: will the measure survive the partisan tug of war that seems bound to break out around the next supplemental appropriations bill–which is, after all, expected to be an Iraq appropriations bill?
Indeed, with so much struggle just to win basic services, it’s little surprise that many homeless partisans are pessimistic. Few said they foresee the day anytime soon when homelessness is simply a problem, not a Category 5 crisis, and some even predict harder times to come.
And yet, despite all this–despite the brutal fact of old women with dementia and middle-aged men with colostomy bags sleeping every night in Depression-era conditions–New Orleans’s advocates keep advocating, and its homeless keep surviving.
“This is new to me. This is not where I want to be,” said Byron Turner, 37, a large man nursing a mild case of pneumonia, as he lay bundled under a dome of blankets, beneath the Claiborne Avenue overpass–the patch of concrete and car fumes he’d called home for nearly seven months. In the weeks since Duncan Plaza closed, this area has become the new epicenter of homeless despair. “But I’m basically trying to make it,” he said. “I’m trying to make the best out of what I can.”‘