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Helping the Katrina Homeless New Orleans is struggling with a growing number of sick and disabled people who have become homeless since the hurricane. This crisis will only get worse until local, state and federal officials come together behind a plan that finds short-term housing for them immediately, and permanent affordable housing for them quickly.
Congress can start by approving a modest, $73 million in funding to house many of the region’s ill and disabled residents, who would also be provided with psychiatric and social services. Such a measure passed the Senate, but it is facing resistance in the House.
Congress also needs to take at least two additional steps to prevent even more people from becoming homeless in New Orleans, where rents have soared since the storm. It should extend the disaster housing assistance program, which is set to expire in March 2009, so more people are not forced into the streets. It should also rewrite federal disaster law to permit the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide the long-term assistance that thousands of hurricane survivors are clearly going to need.
In New Orleans, homeless services agencies estimate that the homeless population has doubled since the storm. The homeless are said to be sicker and more severely disabled than in the past. Outreach workers have come across people suffering from severe mental disorders, as well as from cancer, AIDS and end-stage kidney disease.
In what could be a harbinger of things to come, 30 percent of the people surveyed in one homeless encampment reported that they had moved onto the streets after being cut off from Federal Emergency Management Agency housing assistance or while living in a household that had lost the benefit.
The state of Louisiana has committed itself to creating 3,000 units of supportive housing targeted to extremely low-income families, which includes many people with disabilities and special needs. But for the units to be affordable, Congress must pass the $73 million in funding to pay for rent subsidies.
This would be a terrible place to economize. The dollar amount is small, and the lives of some of this country’s most vulnerable citizens — who were already abandoned once by their government — are at stake.
A United Nations treaty committee ruled Friday that the United States’ response to Hurricane Katrina has had a greater negative impact on displaced black residents and called on the federal government to do more to guarantee that they can return to affordable housing in their hometowns.
The U.N. committee also ruled Friday that the U.S. government must make sure displaced residents have a greater say in plans that affect their return.
Housing advocates in New Orleans proclaimed the decision as a victory in their protracted battle with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, saying the U.N. finding proved that HUD failed to consider alternatives to its plans to demolish four large public housing complexes and replace them with a mixed-income model with fewer total units.
Advocates called on HUD to halt the demolitions and specifically focused on one of the complexes, Lafitte, saying its sturdy buildings are historic and can be easily repaired to increase the supply of affordable housing in the city.
The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously in December to demolish the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard and Lafitte complexes. Before the council vote, Mayor Ray Nagin approved demolition permits for all the complexes except Lafitte.
Unlike a statement from two U.N. experts last week that culled observations of anti-demolition activists to accuse HUD of discrimination, the U.N. committee considered input from both sides of the debate. But in issuing its findings, the committee did not call on HUD to halt demolition plans in New Orleans.
HUD responded to the U.N. committee findings, released Friday in Geneva, Switzerland, by equating them with the ad hoc statements from the two U.N. agents, who acknowledged this week that they had not been to New Orleans since Katrina.
"The view from the Alps is obviously different than the view from the Mississippi," HUD spokeswoman D.J. Nordquist said. "Based on that information, it would seem that this report cannot possibly mean anything. Our plan is a vast improvement over the old paradigm of concentrating families in islands of poverty, a recipe for dependence and despair across generations."
The U.N. committee, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD, was considering whether the United States had complied over the past seven years with the anti-racism treaty the country signed in 1994. It praised the United States for some of the steps the government has made to address racial discrimination, including the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.
But among its concerns, which included admonishing the United States for de facto segregation in public schools, police brutality and permitting life imprisonment of juveniles, the treaty committee singled out housing issues in the wake of Katrina.
"The committee, while noting the efforts undertaken by the (U.S. government) and civil society organisations to assist the persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina of 2005, remains concerned about the disparate impact that this natural disaster continues to have on low-income African American residents, many of whom continue to be displaced after more than two years after the hurricane," the CERD report said.
The committee recommended that the U.S. government work more aggressively to get displaced residents into "adequate and affordable housing, where possible in their place of habitual residence." It specifically said the government needed to "ensure genuine consultation and participation of persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina in the design and implementation of all decisions affecting them."
The U.N. body then told the 24-member U.S. delegation, comprised mostly of State Department and Justice Department representatives, to report back within a year to show how it had addressed the committee’s concerns.
Nordquist said HUD has, in fact, consulted extensively with public housing tenant groups. The tenant groups have held numerous meetings with the developers of new complexes and visited other cities to study similar redevelopment projects. And she said HUD has worked vigorously to help the displaced return home.
"We have gone to extraordinary lengths to bring all citizens home who so choose, with the government not only paying for their relocation costs, but also helping residents break leases wherever they are if they would like to come back to New Orleans," she said.
Battle over Lafitte
At a news conference in New Orleans on Friday, a group of human rights, faith-based and advocacy organizations seized on the U.N. findings to ask city officials to stop HUD-ordered demolition work, particularly at the Lafitte complex, a development in Treme that sustained little damage in the 2005 hurricane.
While there is no permit to demolish Lafitte, contractors have begun asbestos abatement work, which advocates said is a thinly veiled effort to begin demolition complex before Nagin issues a permit.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., countered with a letter to Nagin urging him to grant the permit immediately so the city will be able to meet a 2010 HUD funding deadline for completing the replacement projects. Vitter criticized the U.N. committee for not taking a closer, on-the-ground look at the issue.
"I’ve been working in the Senate to bring about a common-sense resolution to the New Orleans public housing issue," Vitter said. "And even without the input and assistance of the U.N., it is apparent that the old New Orleans public housing system was broken. Recent news reports have noted that the majority of former residents surveyed stated that they have no desire to return to those conditions."
HUD argues that its plans for stick-built houses and mixed-income neighborhoods, some of which are already housing residents, will end the concentrated poverty of traditional housing developments. On Thursday, HUD came out with a University of Texas at Arlington survey that showed most of the 2,109 residents surveyed didn’t want to return to Housing Authority of New Orleans public housing units, findings HUD said proved it will have enough new units for everyone who wants to come back.
But Damon Hewitt, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a New Orleans native, said HUD is presenting public housing residents with a false choice of "go back to the same old way or just stay away."
"We can have a policy debate about what the housing should look like, but the issue we have moral clarity on is, What about the people who want to come back and have nothing to come home to?" Hewitt said.
Critical of new construction
Julie Andrews, a former resident at the Desire complex, said she much preferred the sturdy old brick buildings to a new stick-built unit she describes as thin-walled and cramped, even if it is more attractive on the outside.
Opponents of the demolitions pointed to a report by John Fernandez, an architecture professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who inspected the four complexes last year. Fernandez found that the complexes feature heavy masonry buildings that are safer, stronger and cheaper to rehabilitate and bring up to code than building new stick-built units. Robert Tannen, an urban planner from New Orleans, said the HUD plans don’t take that into account.
"Unfortunately, we haven’t separated the urban policy debate from the hysterical social arguments," he said.
Fernandez, who was paid by housing advocates to provide expert testimony in a lawsuit against HUD, also suggested that the older buildings can better withstand damage from severe storms and hurricanes.
Whatever new buildings HUD constructs must meet a more stringent building code. Commercial buildings in New Orleans, including public buildings and apartment complexes, have been required to meet International Building Code standards since that code was adopted in New Orleans in January 2005, a year before the code was adopted statewide.
That code requires buildings to be built to withstand 130-mph winds and meet other standards to withstand hurricanes.
The state’s adoption of International Code Council commercial and residential codes required use of similar International Residential Code standards for single-family and two-family homes, beginning in January 2006.
A big aspect of the U.N. treaty body’s ruling is the international shaming that comes with a finding of racial discrimination. The U.N. follows international human rights laws that define racial discrimination based on how minorities are affected by government policies, not the intent of those policies. The U.N. report Friday explicitly criticized the United States for denying discrimination simply because none was intended.
The advocates welcomed the U.N. ruling as a way to hold HUD accountable for the thousands of black New Orleanians who haven’t been able to return home, even if the government policies aren’t overtly racist.
"People are always looking for smoking guns to prove" racism, Hewitt said. "But we know that’s not how racial discrimination works today in this country."
Government reports confirm that half of the working poor, elderly and disabled who lived in New Orleans before Katrina have not returned. Because of critical shortages in low cost housing, few now expect tens of thousands of poor and working people to ever be able to return home.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) reports Medicaid, medical assistance for aged, blind, disabled and low-wage working families, is down 46% from pre-Katrina levels. DHH reports before Katrina there were 134,249 people in New Orleans on Medicaid. February 2008 reports show participation down to 72,211 (a loss of 62,038 since Katrina). Medicaid is down dramatically in every category: by 50% for the aged, 53% for blind, 48% for the disabled and 52% for children.
The Social Security Administration documents that fewer than half the elderly are back. New Orleans was home to 37,805 retired workers who received Social Security before Katrina, now there are 18,940 – a 50% reduction. Before Katrina, there were 12,870 disabled workers receiving Social Security Disability in New Orleans, now there are 5350 – 59% less. Before there were 9425 widowers in New Orleans receiving Social Security survivor’s benefits, now there are less than half, 4140.
Children of working class families have not returned. Public school enrollment in New Orleans was 66,372 before Katrina. Latest figures are 32,149 – a 52% reduction.
Public transit numbers are down 75% since Katrina. Prior to Katrina there were frequently over 3 million rides per month. In January 2008, there were 732,000 rides. The Regional Transit Authority says the reduction reflects that New Orleans has far fewer poorer, transit dependent residents.
Figures from the Louisiana Department of Social Services show the number of families receiving food stamps in New Orleans has dropped from 46,551 in June of 2005 to 22,768 in January 2008. Welfare numbers are also down. The Louisiana Families Independence Temporary Assistance Program was down from 5764 recipients (mostly children) in July 2005 to 1412 in the latest report.
While there are no precise figures on the racial breakdown of the poor and working people still displaced, indications strongly suggest they are overwhelmingly African American. The black population of New Orleans has plummeted by 57 percent, while white population fell 36 percent, according to census data. The areas which are fully recovering are more affluent and predominately white. New Orleans, which was 67 percent black before Katrina, is estimated to be no higher than 58 percent black now.
The reduction in poor and low-wage workers in New Orleans is no surprise to social workers. Don Everard, director of social service agency Hope House, says New Orleans is a much tougher town for poor people than before Katrina.
"Housing costs a lot more and there is much less of it," says Everard. "The job market is also very unstable. The rise in wages after Katrina has mostly fallen backwards and people are not getting enough hours of work on a regular basis."
The displacement of tens of thousands of people is now expected to be permanent because there is both a current shortage of affordable housing and no plan to create affordable rental housing for tens of thousands of the displaced.
In the most blatant sign of government action to reduce the numbers of poor people in New Orleans, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is demolishing thousands of intact public housing apartments. HUD is spending nearly a billion dollars with questionable developers to end up with much less affordable housing. Right after Katrina, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson predicted New Orleans was "not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again." He then worked to make that prediction true.
According to Policy Link, a national research institute, the crisis in affordable housing means barely 2 in 5 renters in Louisiana can return to affordable homes. In New Orleans, all the funds currently approved by HUD and other government agencies (not spent, only approved) for housing for low-income renters will only rebuild one-third of the pre-Katrina affordable rental housing stock.
Hope House sees four to five hundred needy people a month. "Most of the people we see are working people facing eviction, utility cutoffs, or they are already homeless" reports Everard. The New Orleans homeless population has already doubled from pre-Katrina numbers to approximately 12,000 people.
Everard noted that because of FEMA’s recent announcement that it was closing 35,000 still occupied trailers across the gulf, homelessness is likely to get a lot worse.
United Nations officials recently called for an immediate halt to the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans saying demolition is a violation of human rights and will force predominately black residents into homelessness.
"The spiraling costs of private housing and rental units, and in particular the demolition of public housing, puts these communities in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness," said a joint statement by UN experts in housing and minority issues. "We therefore call on the Federal Government and State and local authorities to immediately halt the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans." Similar calls have been made by Senators Clinton and Obama. Despite these calls, the demolitions continue.
The rebuilding has gone as many planned. Right after Katrina, one wealthy businessman told the Wall Street Journal, "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically." Elected officials, from national officials like President Bush and HUD Secretary Jackson to local city council members, who are presumably sleeping in their own beds, apparently concur.
Policies put in place so far do not appear overly concerned about the tens of thousands of working poor, the elderly and the disabled who are not able to come home.
The political implications of a dramatic reduction in poor and working mostly African American people in New Orleans are straightforward. The reduction directly helps Republicans who have fought for years to reduce the impact of the overwhelmingly Democratic New Orleans on state-wide politics in Louisiana.
In the jargon of political experts, Louisiana, before Katrina, was a "pink state." The state went for Clinton twice and then for Bush twice, with U.S. Senators from each party. The forced relocation of hundreds of thousands, mostly lower income and African-American, could alter the balance between the two major parties in Louisiana and the opportunities for black elected officials in New Orleans.
Given the political and governmental officials and policies in place now, one of the major casualties of Katrina will be the permanent displacement of tens of thousands of African Americans, the working poor, their children, the elderly, and the disabled.
Those who wanted a different New Orleans rebuilt probably see the concentrated displacement as a success. However, if the test of a society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, the aftermath of Katrina earns all of us a failing grade.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Interested persons can contact Hope House through Don Everard at email@example.com
February 29, 2008, Atlanta, Georgia – Reacting to yesterday’s report by a UN expert calling on the U.S. government to immediately stop evictions and demolitions of public housing in New Orleans, Ajamu Baraka, Executive Director of the US Human Rights Network said, "The Comments from the UN experts captured the reality of situation in New Orleans. What is happening to low-income families in New Orleans is a national disgrace — and must stop immediately. Human rights and civil rights organizations across the country welcome and support the United Nations’ intervention on this issue."
There has been criticism of the UN report from some who expressed surprise that the UN would intervene on such an issue. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) stated, "The United Nations, an organization that has been scrutinized for its exploitation of the poor… has deemed itself a high enough authority to look down its nose at us here in the United State over the public housing debate." Senator Vitter also characterized the United Nations as a "wasteful international organization" and encouraged the UN to focus on cleaning up its own act rather than commenting on U.S. efforts.
In response, Baraka stated, "Those who would say that the UN is a ‘foreign organization’ clearly have not done their homework. The U.S. is a major player within the United Nations – and the UN experts who commented on conditions in New Orleans did so as a result of appeals from U.S. citizens."
The USHRN urges the U.S. government to heed the call from UN experts, halt ongoing evictions and demolitions of public housing in New Orleans, and take immediate steps to protect the rights of those who continue to feel the effects of Hurricane Katrina, many of whom are African America. The statement was released by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing, Miloon Kohtari, and a UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall, just days after over 120 activists associated with the USHRN returned from Geneva to monitor the Bush Administration’s compliance under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), an international treaty signed by the U.S., which carried the force of law in the United States.
While in Geneva, activists and experts affiliated with the USHRN testified before United Nations officials about the reality of racial discrimination in the U.S., including the race related effects of Hurricane Katrina. In their statement to the U.S. government, Kothari and MacDougall address the fact that more than 12,000 people remain homeless in the New Orleans metro area alone; demolition of public housing may lead to the displacement of more than 5,000 more families; federal and local authorities continue to ignore the disparate impacts of Hurricane Katrina, claiming that the discrimination is not intentional; and the government must meaningfully consult and engage with the communities and families affected by the demolitions and redevelopment in order to protect the rights of those people who have been affected, who are mostly African American.
On February 28, 2008 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, and the UN Independent Expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, issued a joint press statement expressing serious concern over the process leading to the demolition of thousands of units of public housing in New Orleans and calling for a halt to the ongoing demolitions. The statement expressed the UN Independent Experts’ dismay over reports of violations of international human rights law in connection with these demolitions, including the right to participation and the right to adequate housing, for former public housing residents. They further called on the U.S. government to halt ongoing demolitions to ensure that redevelopment plans include participation by former public housing tenants and respect their right to return. The joint statement follows a private communication on December 17, 2007 by the UN Independent Experts to the U.S. government.
In responding to the press statement, U.S. Senator David Vitter (LA-R) stated: "Sadly, the debate on public housing reform in New Orleans has taken a turn toward [sic] theater of the absurd … The current redevelopment plan promotes homeownership and independence and provides a fresh alternative to the decades-old, failed New Orleans public housing system …"
To characterize the United Nations, to which the U.S. is a major contributor, as a "theater of absurd" is disconcerting enough, but to describe the demolitions as a "fresh alternative" is morally reprehensible. Local and federal officials’ decision to allow minimally damaged public housing units to remain closed after the storms has directly contributed to the swelled numbers of homeless persons living in New Orleans. Moreover, the demolitions are not accompanied by plans for homeownership. On the contrary, Mr. Vitter has been a staunch opponent of the Gulf Coast Recovery Act, which guarantees one for one replacement and the right to return of former public housing residents. Mr. Vitter’s posturing on this matter is in direct opposition to international human rights law, specifically the human right to housing and the right to participation.
The South African Constitution Court recently ruled in Occupiers of 51 Olivia Road v. City of Johannesburg, that "before an order of eviction that would lead to homelessness is granted at the instance of a municipality, there [must be] meaningful engagement or, at least, … the municipality [must make] reasonable efforts towards meaningful engagement." This internationally recognized right to participation is likewise reflected in Section 28 of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement: "Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration." With respect to the human rights to housing, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states: "The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate … housing …" The current demolitions are in direct conflict with both the right to participation and the right to housing.
We applaud the statement made by the UN Independent Experts and encourage the U.S. government to heed this call from the international community and respect the human rights of hurricane survivors.
A full copy of the UN statement is available at:
A full copy of the UN statement is available at:http://www.unhchr.ch/huricane/huricane.nsf/view01/907604B6DAF5E2F1C12573FD007AD7DC?opendocument
Activist and educator Ajamu Baraka is executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, a coalition of more than 250 human rights and social justice organizations. A native of Chicago, he’s taught political science at several universities and been a guest lecturer at schools throughout the U.S. In ‘98, Baraka was honored by the international community as one of the 300 human rights defenders from around the world. He’s also on the board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
GENEVA — United Nations experts weighed in Thursday on the debate over public housing in New Orleans, accusing the U.S. federal government and local authorities of forcing predominantly black residents into homelessness.
The experts said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and local governments will violate the human rights of thousands of New Orleans residents by demolishing public housing units.
They said the majority of those affected are black and many were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
The U.S. mission in Geneva declined to comment immediately.
The U.N. statement cited the start of demolition work on the St. Bernard public housing development in New Orleans, and said there were similar plans for the Lafitte, B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete developments.
The experts said these demolitions, combined with the spiraling costs for private housing and rental units, puts African-American communities badly hurt by Hurricane Katrina "in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness."
The U.N.-appointed experts called on the governments of the United States, Louisiana and New Orleans to halt demolitions of public housing and include current and former residents of the city in discussions to help them return to their homes.
The heated debate over public housing in New Orleans sparked several protests while the City Council finalized the demolitions, and caused a small riot at City Hall.
The United Nations has weighed in on the public housing debate in New Orleans, coming down squarely on the side of displaced residents.
Two independent experts, working with the U.N. Humans Rights Commission report that the demolition of public housing in the city is effectively denying the right of return to minorities.
”Whether or not the demolitions were intentionally discriminatory, ‘the lack of consultation with those affected and the disproportionate impact on poorer and predominantly African-American residents and former residents would result in the denial of internationally recognized human rights,”’ their report said.