New Orleans homeless hole up in Hurricane Katrina’s abandoned buildings

Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, stands in front of graffiti on a blighted building in mid-city. Founded in 1992, UNITY is a nonprofit leading a collaborative of 60 organizations providing housing and services to the homeless.
Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, stands in front of graffiti on a blighted building in mid-city. Founded in 1992, UNITY is a nonprofit leading a collaborative of 60 organizations providing housing and services to the homeless. MCT

There’s a gigantic hole in the roof of the abandoned building where Ralph Paze lives in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans. The dilapidated couch where he sleeps is shoved off to the side to be more or less clear from the rain that pours in.

It could be worse, said Paze, who survives by collecting cans for recycling. He used to stay in a different abandoned building not far away, a place where he kept a few belongings.

“I left in the morning to go pick cans, and when I came home that night the house had been demolished,” he said.

Paze is among the estimated 4,900 in a New Orleans-area homeless population that’s nearly two and a half times bigger than it was seven years ago, before the region’s mismanaged levees failed, flooding the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The majority of the homeless, like Paze, sleep in the abandoned buildings that remain as a legacy of the storm. There are roughly 40,000 such buildings, some still bearing the search-and-rescue markings that indicate whether dead bodies were found inside after the flooding. A quarter of the residential housing in the city remains vacant, even as much of New Orleans has enjoyed a remarkable recovery from the flooding. This is an aspect that most of the tourists don’t see, the other side of the coin from the celebrated cuisine and music.

A team of homeless-outreach workers searches the city’s abandoned buildings in the middle of the night, looking for those who need help. They come across people living in filth, using plastic buckets in the hallways for bathrooms, sweating in the heat and humidity with no electricity or running water. The team, from Unity of Greater New Orleans, finds people in desperate shape or sometimes lying dead on bedrolls.

“There is no other city in America where homeless-outreach workers have to do that. It is not normal. We are very much still in a search and rescue operation seven years after the storm,” said Martha Kegel, the executive director of Unity , a coalition of more than 60 housing and services organizations, including the City of New Orleans. “They keep pulling out really, really disabled, elderly people from these buildings, and as long as they’re doing that I’m not going to tell them to stop.”

The search goes on from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. That’s when people are in the buildings instead of out trying to get money or fleeing the sweltering heat that builds up in the structures during the Louisiana summer days.

Skyrocketing rent

“Hello! Unity homeless outreach! Anybody home?” the team members called out as they approached another crumbling building in the middle of the night, another urine-soaked doorway, about to walk into a rotted shell while stepping carefully to avoid any drug needles, rusty nails or collapsed floorboards.

The outreach team includes Mike Miller, bearded and in his early 30s, a deep-voiced native Chicagoan and part-time bartender with a master’s degree in social work from Tulane University. He rides through the night with Travers Kurr and Clarence White, whose own home in the Gentilly neighborhood drowned under 10 feet of water, forcing him to wade to the Louisiana Superdome, live for a time in an 18-foot Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer and then camp out in his own home for months without electricity or running water as he rebuilt it.

It was after 1 a.m. when the team checked on Paze, squatting in a broken-down house in the Seventh Ward. The windows were boarded up, and a tangle of vegetation grew on what remained of the roof. Paze has lived there for about a year, washing up with jugs of water in the parking lot of a nearby church.

Paze said he hauled in about 28 pounds of cans a day for recycling, an effort that brings him $14 to live on. A homeless shelter isn’t an option, he said, because he needs to be out hustling cans as long as there’s daylight. By the time he gets to a shelter, there isn’t space available for him, he said.

There are only a handful of shelters on the city with enough beds for just a small percentage of the city’s homeless population. Social worker Miller said there was less shelter capacity in the city than before Hurricane Katrina, and the shelters often weren’t a great option.

This is in a metro area that the National Alliance to End Homelessness pegged in a report this year as having the second highest rate of homelessness in the nation, barely below recession-ravaged Tampa, Fla.

Miller and his team try to get people out of abandoned buildings and into subsidized apartments that house homeless people with severe disabilities. Unity opened its own 60-unit building in February for homeless and working-poor renters. There’s been remarkable progress, with a huge decline in chronic, longtime homeless people in New Orleans in recent years, after the population spiked at an estimated 11,600 some 18 months after the storm.

But desperately poor people are still making their way back to the city. Others have lost their homes as rents rose in New Orleans. It used to be possible to find a place in the city to rent for $300 a month, before the levees failed.

“Hurricane Katrina destroyed 70 percent of the housing stock in New Orleans, including 51,000 rental units. Rents quickly escalated and still remain 47 percent higher than pre-Katrina levels. However, wages remain largely the same,” according to a report Unity prepared. “As a result, New Orleans is now the most rent-burdened community in the nation, with more of New Orleanians’ income going toward rent than even traditionally high-cost cities such as New York.”

Time for help

Before the 2005 flooding, family members often took care of relatives who had physical or mental disabilities, Unity director Kegel said. But the storm scattered families.

“In some cases the disabled member of the family came back alone. Or the disabled member of the family came back but now the rest of the family is living in too overcrowded conditions to be able to deal with the uncle with schizophrenia,” she said. “And so he ends up homeless, where before he wasn’t homeless. You see that over and over again.”

Fifty-five percent of the city’s homeless population has physical or mental disabilities, often both, she said. People such as “Tyler.” (Unity asked that his real name be withheld because of confidentiality concerns about his mental health.) He came to New Orleans for opportunity and ended up living in garbage and filth. Middle-aged, rail-thin and fidgety, he arrived from Atlanta after the flood to try to get construction work as part of the recovery effort.

He suffers from Buerger’s disease, he said, a blood vessel condition that afflicts his legs, and he can walk only a block before having to sit and rest. There are also the mental problems. He can’t stand to have other people in the house with him, and he now panhandles for money. His companion is a stray dog he nursed back to health after finding her in the street, hit by a truck.

He lives in an abandoned house in the Central City neighborhood, and he tries to keep a low profile so he won’t be rousted by the cops.

The outreach team paid him a visit on a recent steamy night, urging him to come and see a psychiatrist who’d be at their office the next day. Tyler was agitated, worried that the team’s visit would bring attention from the neighbors, who’d call the police.

But after a few minutes he paused, and his voice dropped.

“It’s time for me to realize this isn’t right,” he finally said, standing outside the ruined, weed-choked house. “It’s time for me to get help.”

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