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At the Intersection of Homelessness, Homeownership and Public Housing
by Elizabeth Cook Sunday, Dec. 30, 2007 at 10:42 AM

Homeless homeowners are living under the overpass at Canal and Claiborne, along with a host of New Orleans natives, and people from out of town looking for work.

Beneath the overpass at Claiborne and Canal, is the intersection between home ownership, homelessness and public housing.

I met two people, a man and a woman, New Orleans natives, each of whom owned homes when the waters filled New Orleans East and the lower ninth ward.

Alex Clay, age 53, sitting in a comfortable chair next to his matress on the concrete, was living in his mother's home in the lower ninth ward when Katrina unleashed her water fury. His mother had died just one month prior to Katrina, and he was the only relative living in the home.

He survived the flood by sitting atop a neighbor's roof with four other adults, and one dog. He was rescued by boat, dropped off at the St. Claude bridge, walked to Canal St., and there his story trailed off. He can't remember where he was brought, what city or small town he lived in for over a year after Katrina.

He knows though that when he came back, he went to see his mother's home in the lower ninth. The house was gone, demolished, "nothing but grass now where it stood".

He's been homeless since he returned to New Orleans about eight months ago. He's been living under the overpass at the intersection of Canal and Claiborne.

No, he has not applied for Road Home help. Neither has Linda Adams (not her real name), a homeowner from New Orleans East when Katrina came crashing ashore. She has no insurance, she said, and about the Road Home, she said she "didn't hear much about it."

Linda asked for sanitary napkins. On my way to Walgreen's to purchase some for her, I reflected on the trauma that many are still feeling, and have suffered since Katrina. Trauma so deep and dramatic that it takes you outside of the normal parameters of life, so that you don't hear about programs that might assist you in recovery.

And while Louisiana Recovery Authority officials pat themselves on the backs for jobs well done, they have shut the Road Home program down, before those like Linda and Alex could muster their inner and outer resources sufficiently to be able to apply. Then again, if you don't have a current address, could you have applied for the Road Home?

I can see Linda and Alex shuffling through the morass of paperwork for the Road Home, explaining to worker after worker, "I don't have a current address, I am homeless."

This particular encampment at Canal and Claiborne is "peaceful", as one resident described it. Mostly older, middle-aged folks, and a few young people "that don't give any trouble". A mentally-ill resident of Iberville Housing Development, just steps away, is a regular visitor, and she was there today, threatening that her attorney would "shut the place down" and everybody "better get their shit packed and moved by Monday".

I recognize her as someone I gave money to at the corner of Canal and Claiborne a few weeks after Katrina. No one in the encampment seemed bothered by her. Indeed, one man put his hand gently on her shoulder and mouthed comforting words "It's alright sister, it's alright.".

Just blocks away is the now shuttered Lafitte Housing Development. 850 units shuttered and scheduled for demolition, while we have New Orleans natives, made homeless by Katrina, sleeping under a nearby overpass.

The sheer immensity of this situation, this human rights violation, can be viewed as a violation to us all, here in New Orleans. It makes one want to scream from rooftops, won't someone hear our cry here in New Orleans? Won't someone recognize the need for immediate action before we lose over 4000 units of affordable, public housing, units that the Alex Clays and the Linda Adams could potentially live in, at least temporarily, in units residents don't return to?

Reopening public housing would also free up much needed rental units, and potentially drive down rents in the city.

Our own people are not hearing our cry. Local and state leaders have bought into the dictum of the "private market" rebuilding New Orleans. Let's translate this: a few developers will make a lot of money in post Katrina New Orleans, whether from gobbling up homes and land abandoned because the homeowners couldn't pay mortgages, or were just too traumatized to connect with the Road Home Program, like Alex and Linda, or whether from the redevelopment of public housing, and reducing the numbers of units for low income renters dramatically, and benefiting from federal tax credits in the process...this is how money will be made in Post-Katrina New Orleans.

Local political leaders are hedging their bets with the whims of homeowners who have been able to rebuild, and are voting policies that benefit a few at the expense of the many.

Raymond, a New Orleans native, returned to New Orleans over one and one-half years ago. He has been homeless since returning, living under the Claiborne/Canal overpass. He works constuction, but finding decent work has proved daunting. He might eat one meal a day, he says. "Some of the people here don't even eat that", he said.

Neither Alex, Linda or Raymond have been approached by Unity for the Homeless. "I've heard of them," Alex said. Remember, Alex has been at this location for eight months; he's heard of Unity, but has never been approached by one of their workers.

Let's face it, there is not a rush to assist the homeless in New Orleans. That $1.5 million recently doled out to Unity for the Homeless is chump change compared to the issue at hand: pulling people off of the street, getting them into decent housing, and staying with them for the long term to keep them off of the street.

David Williams, not his real name, and a resident of this encampment, just had surgery. He pulled his shirt up to reveal a long row of stitches that are holding the scar together. He had a hole in his kidney; said he nearly died out here, under the overpass. He pointed to a tent. "The fellow that lives there, he kept me alive", he said, "until the ambulance came".

He said he has medications, and he's feeling fine. University Hospital is treating him. What he doesn't have is clean gauze and peroxide. David is a convicted felon, and a veteran. He has been homeless since the storm.

He gestured angrily at the empty buildings nearby. "What about this big empty building?" he said. David wants to work, and is hoping for a job with his nephew. He doesn't want help from the government, and said he has too much pride to stay with family.

There are a host of people in the encampment from elsewhere, who came here looking for work after Katrina. There is a cabinet maker from New Hampshire, a construction worker from Monroe, Louisiana, a groundskeeper from California, and two young people in their twenties from New York.

Cheryl and Wes, not their real names, decided to pull up stakes from New York, and come down here for work. On their way here, their car burnt to the ground, along with all of their clothes and money. The Red Cross paid for their bus fare here, and they've been homeless since November 1st.

They were sleeping by the wharves on the river, but they began to hear about rapes occurring at the wharves, and so decided to join the encampment at Canal and Claiborne. They work cleaning the Superdome, which is just blocks away, as do several people that I spoke to in the encampment.

When I visited the homeless who were encamped at Duncan Plaza, several of those folks also said they worked at the Superdome, cleaning up after special events.

The irony of this situation fairly screams for attention. In the shadow of the Superdome, where people died waiting for help after Katrina, now sleep the homeless. They work in the Superdome, but there is no housing for them in New Orleans that is affordable.

The Superdome, by the way, was repaired and refurbished and back on line just one year after Katrina. I remember Governor Blanco mouthing platitudes, something to the effect, "This shows the will and determination of the people of Louisiana to rebuild".

No governor, this shows something else. Terribly misplaced priorities, and a cold willingness to look the other way when it comes to the suffering of Louisianians, as they continue to struggle to recover.

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This is still an immeadiate problem Wayne Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 at 6:38 PM
This is still an immeadiate problem Wayne Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 at 6:30 PM
BCS Protest Catfish Tuesday, Jan. 08, 2008 at 11:53 PM
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