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Life is increasingly hard for New Orleans' homeless

NEW ORLEANS—When John Yates wakes up under a blanket in the lush shrubbery of a French Quarter municipal park, he heads directly to a grocery and buys himself a 24-ounce can of beer.

"I wake up, I go get a Bud," said Yates, 50, one of the few people who didn't evacuate downtown New Orleans when emergency buses showed up after days of uncertainty and violence. He and an older friend, who have been homeless for decades, said they rode out Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29 without injury, then shunned evacuation during the days of chaos that followed.

Roy Allain, a homeless-shelter official, said the men were among about 100 chronic homeless people who remained in New Orleans, which may have had as many as 3,000 people living on the street or in shelters before Katrina.

While widely publicized images in newspapers and on television showed long lines of emergency buses leaving New Orleans on Sept. 1 packed with people who lost their homes, a small number of hard-core homeless stayed behind.

"For days we had nothing. No food. No water," Yates said. He and several others survived by getting help from National Guard troops who overlooked the fact that people still remained in a closed part of the city.

As they always did, they slept wherever they could find a dry place.

"Why leave? Especially when you don't know where they'll take you," Yates said.

How many street people stayed in New Orleans may never be known, said Allain, the assistant director of the Ozanam Inn, a shelter run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Allain said he'd encountered about 15 homeless people who used to come to his now-closed shelter who said they didn't evacuate. He said that many of the chronic homeless now in New Orleans' downtown area may have stayed behind.

Some street people in New Orleans said Katrina had made survival easier because emergency food stations and cleanup jobs to earn a little money to buy alcohol were plentiful.

Others said that with all but one of the city's rescue missions closed because of storm damage, life was even more uncertain.

Freddie Lea, 49, lost an apartment he had shared with a friend, a job, a dog and his pickup to the flooding. For him, daily existence is bitter. He said he chose not to board an evacuation bus because he thought he could restart his life by helping to clean up New Orleans. Instead, he ended up on the street.

He lives in a small tent on a sidewalk outside Washington Square Park a few blocks from the French Quarter, where a loose-knit volunteer group known as the Rainbow Family has been feeding people for two months.

"I'm stuck right here. There is no help. No real work," he said. "If I leave for very long to go someplace else for a job, my stuff won't be here when I get back. Everything I own is right inside that tent."

Keith Cash was sitting on the sidewalk next to Lea. He said he'd stayed behind even though he was living at a shelter and had only a menial job because he had an opportunity to attend a local cooking school.

"I didn't want to lose that chance, so I called FEMA and they said they would help," said Cash, 32, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which handles disaster relief. "Then they said `Your case is pending.' The city has us on a back burner."

About four hours later, at 7:30 p.m., Cash was asleep on a yellow blanket spread on the sidewalk near a park where dozens of other homeless people had gathered.

The future for New Orleans' remaining homeless people is grim, said Lou Banfalvi, the director of the New Orleans Rescue Mission, which is closed and won't reopen for months because of heavy storm damage.

Banfalvi said the French Quarter was basically spared, which may have encouraged some street people who frequent the area not to board evacuation buses.

"Day by day the homeless come by asking if they can stay," Banfalvi said. "We have to turn them away. We've turned away 30 or 40 in the last two weeks. Some of them have stayed with us for years. Now they have no place."

Because of neighbors' complaints, the refuge afforded by Washington Square Park may soon end.

The Rainbow Family's Felipe Chavez said city park officials had asked the group to move.

"They blast reveille in the morning," said Mike Pitre, who owns a condominium opposite the park. "They play bongo drums. Maybe it's time for us to get our park back."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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