As she pushed a shopping cart of belongings through the still-life of the Lower 9th Ward, Tamara Martin knew only one source of shelter for this city’s burgeoning homeless population: the thousands of buildings left vacant and rotting nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina.
The angular 33-year-old, who takes the anti-anxiety drug Lexapro to drive away what she calls “that evil solution” of crack cocaine, slept for two months in the shell of her childhood home, rejected by family and emergency shelters who said they had no room for an addict.
Routed from the gutted house by National Guard patrols who warned that a weak roof could entomb her, Martin accepted a move-in invitation from a man in another abandoned building. It’s another poor substitute for the apartment she used to have at a housing project, one of four the government wants to demolish in a city where market rent has increased 81 percent.
Because she’s homeless, she said, “I can’t get right, you know... I’m striving hard. I’m striving hard. I’m losing so much weight I’m striving so much.”
Across New Orleans — from abandoned sections of the Lower 9th Ward to apartments near City Hall and even wind-shredded suburban houses — a homeless population that has nearly doubled since Hurricane Katrina is squatting in the ruins of the storm. Through pried-open doors of some of the city’s estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings, the poor, mentally ill and drug-addicted have carved out living conditions like those of the Third World.
“These are abandoned people, living in abandoned housing, in a city which in many ways has itself been abandoned,” said Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a group that helps the homeless.
In January 2005, UNITY volunteers toured shelters, parks and flophouses and counted 6,300 homeless people in the city and its immediate suburbs. A UNITY count in January 2007 estimated 12,000 homeless, though only 60 percent of the city’s general population had returned.
'That's where people end up dying'
Shelters say they are turning away hundreds each night, their beds reduced citywide from 832 to 232.
“There’s no shelters left in this city. And I’d rather live in an abandoned home than under the overpass. That’s where people end up dying,” said Nick St. Laurent, 26, who came from Detroit seeking construction work but ended up in a gutted apartment about a quarter-mile from City Hall. Nearby is a homeless camp under the elevated Interstate 10, in a neighborhood where police report a murder and nine assaults this year.
No one knows exactly how many people have taken refuge in abandoned buildings, but unprecedented increases in trespassing arrests and vacant-building fires suggest there could be thousands.
Some are longtime residents like Martin. Others, like St. Laurent, came to the city for rebuilding jobs but ran into a buzzsaw of gentrifying rents and damage to affordable apartments and shelters.
Of the 200,000 homes lost to Katrina, 41,000 were rental units affordable to people earning less than the area’s median income, according to a July study by the California nonprofit PolicyLink. Since the storm, fair market rent for an efficiency apartment has risen from $461 to $836, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
“Yet again, New Orleans is showing how important it is that poverty be addressed in this country,” said Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, who has promised the state would lobby for more federal money for housing and homeless services. The bulk of funding for such programs has been allocated and need is not nearly met, he said.
For example, a $26 million state plan to provide drug counseling coupled with long-term affordable housing is designed to restore pre-Katrina levels of assistance, not deal with the post-storm spike in homelessness, state officials said. The housing portion of the plan is tethered to federal tax incentives for developers who have thus far built little for the city’s poorest, according to the PolicyLink report.
Little legislative hope
Tax credits currently fund the reconstruction of only 8 percent of the apartments that were affordable to people earning 30 percent of the median income, the report found.
The four housing projects slated for demolition, including Martin’s, accounted for 3,000 low-income units. Affordable replacements are funded for only 1 in 4 of those, the report found.
The only effort to tackle post-Katrina homelessness comes from the proposed Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007, which could mandate the restoration of all affordable housing and create a 10-fold increase in funds for other homeless assistance.
But a spokesman for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., ranking member of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, said the legislation will stay there until Louisiana’s slow-moving Road Home recovery program reports how many people it can help first.
Police on front lines
If homelessness and squatting have gone unaddressed by policy makers, police, fire and health officials have become too familiar with it.
The New Orleans Fire Department recorded 691 structural fires in 2006, the most recent statistics available. Squatters are suspected to have accidentally started one-fifth of them, according to fire Capt. Terry Hardy.
“It has stretched our manpower,” said Hardy, pointing out that the department is down by 100 firefighters since Katrina, and fire call response times are crawling.
According to New Orleans police records, there have been more than 1,400 trespassing arrests so far this year, ranking it the city’s fourth most common crime. Police say processing a homeless person, particularly for mental health care in a city where hospital beds are scarce, can take an officer off the street for four hours. “It’s draining resources,” said police spokesman Sgt. Joe Narcisse.
Homeless people sometimes call authorities on themselves, hoping to find a safe place for the night, said Dr. Joe Guarisco, chief of emergency services for the area’s Ochsner Health System.
“Frequently, it’s the homeless individual who generates the 911 call, or some type of distress signal,” said Guarisco.
'Living in a shell'
But not all of Katrina’s homeless are lawbreakers.
Katrina blew out the rear of Beverlyn Landry’s house in Gretna, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Her husband, Wallace, a carpenter, turned the power back on and nailed up siding before he died of lung cancer in March. With her husband gone, no homeowner or life insurance, and family members struggling with their own Katrina recovery, Landry has stayed in the patched together dwelling.
With an intact front, it looks like any other house in the blue-collar neighborhood. But inside, conditions are abject. Electrical wires are exposed. A rotting floor bends underfoot. At night, Landry sees Louisiana stars framed by the two-by-fours supporting her tattered roof.
“I’m living in a shell,” said Landry, 60. “If the board of health were to see this, I think they would make me get out anyway.”
But options for the post-Katrina homeless have not only been limited by government decisions.
The faith-based group that ran the largest homeless shelter in the state, the Brantley Baptist Center in New Orleans, told The Associated Press the facility, shut down by Katrina, will not reopen. Operated by the North American Mission Board, Brantley received the homeless for 77 years and recorded 77,984 sign-ins for food, counseling and shelter in 2003 alone.
A spokesman for the board said it has shifted focus to a volunteer partnership that has built 175 single-family homes in the city, with a goal of 1,000.
“We know if we opened a shelter with 400 beds, that would fill up pretty quickly,” said spokesman Mike Ebert. “But we’re also asking our partners: Is that really the best role for us to play?”
Life in Katrina's ruins
A half-mile from Brantley, four squatters — St. Laurent; Alan Wheeler, 43, from Pittsburgh; Alberto Mendez, 37, from Fort Worth, Texas; and Renata Smith, 27, from the Lower 9th Ward — hide in rat-infested apartments. A stain from Katrina’s floodwaters stripes their doors.
The group did not immediately show itself one night when UNITY worker Shamus Rohn, 26, entered and called out: “Anybody here? Anyone need food? Water?” But one by one, they emerged from dank rooms.
Wheeler said he would live in a shelter and seek drug counseling if they were available. Life in Katrina’s ruins has seen him spiral from a 190-pound construction entrepreneur making a quarter-million dollars, he said, to a 135-pound crack addict.
“Alan’s homeless?” asked David Cooper, his former business partner in Ostrander, Ohio, who confirmed Wheeler’s past and was shocked by his present condition.
Wheeler used his money to plunge back into a drug habit he has battled for years, he said. He keeps a picture of his former self in his wallet, his arm around his wife Lori, who has left him.
“That’s my girl. I’ll always love her,” he said, a smile fading from his gaunt face.
'I'm still standing here'
Tamara Martin insists drugs are a thing of her past, and for two recent weeks, a family friend, Harry Gibson, 70, took her in for what looked like a better life.
But she said the arrangement at the tiny shotgun house made her feel like a burden.
She left one day, seeking an apartment and even going back to her housing project to ask caretakers when her home would reopen.
Its future is uncertain, as a group of former residents and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development begin a legal battle.
Out of ideas, Martin returned recently to her abandoned and gutted childhood home.
“It isn’t any kind of way to live,” she said. “But I’ve been on the street so long I can survive. There’s a few things they can’t take from me. I’m Tamara Martin and I’m still standing here in New Orleans.”