Homeless and Struggling in New Orleans

On the fourth anniversary of Katrina, people are still dying.

By Jordan Flaherty Aug 27, 2009

Crawling through a hole in a fence and walking through an open doorway, Shamus Rohn and Mike Miller lead the way into an abandoned mid-city hospital. They are outreach workers for the organization UNITY of Greater New Orleans and they do this all day long—searching seemingly empty houses and buildings for homeless people—so they can offer services and support.

“We joke about having turned criminal trespass into a full-time job,” says Rohn.

Up a darkened stairway and through the detritus of a building that looks like it’s 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.”

Palmer 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.” Before Katrina, Palmer 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 Palmer 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 full-time 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 percent of them showed signs of use, including a total of 270 bedrolls or mattresses.

UNITY estimates that there are at least 6,000 squatters and a total of about 11,000 homeless individuals in the city. The organization 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.”

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 is 45, and the oldest was 90. Over 70 percent report or show signs of psychiatric disorders, and 42 percent 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.”

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“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’s 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 at neighbors’ homes. 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.

Burkhalter 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,” she explains. “But when I came back, my rent was up to $1200.” Burkhalter has been homeless since then.

The problem was exacerbated by the demolition of thousands of units of public housing, a decision made, some activists claim, in order to make the land available for profitable development. No matter what the motivation, the result has been to destroy any chance for the community to reconstitute itself, as well as making affordable housing almost non-existent.

Section 8 subsidized housing has been offered as a theoretical solution for those displaced from public housing and other poor renters, but the supply of landlords willing to accept Section 8 tenants is far smaller than the demand for such housing. A new study from the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center shows that 82 percent of landlords in the city either refused outright to accept Section 8 vouchers or added insurmountable requirements.

The study found that both discrimination on the part of landlords and mismanagement on the part of the housing agency were barriers.

One prospective landlord told a Housing Action Center tester 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.” Ninety-nine percent of Section 8 voucher holders in Orleans parish are Black.

Mismanagement by 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, but 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 percent of her income for rent and has been forced to go months at a time without water, gas or lights.

George Tucker, another member of STAND—and, 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 13 months.

“This governmental crookedness is not new,” he said. “But it cannot continue without consequences.”

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, Gov. Jindal vetoed the bill. He also vetoed funding for the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital, further reducing medical and mental health services in the city at a time when the need is increasing.

For people like Palmer, 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,” he 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. I’m not a politician, and I’m not politically savvy, but I don’t think they care.”

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of Left Turn magazine and a staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute