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Surge in homeless hits New Orleans

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City officials say addressing the city's shortage of affordable housing hinges on state and federal funds, both of which have been slow in materializing. "Mayor [Ray] Nagin realizes that homelessness is a growing problem in New Orleans," says Pat Robinson, deputy chief for planning for the Mayor's Office of Planning and Development. "To address this, we're utilizing state and federal allocations and working with agencies such as UNITY, which are working as an extension of city government."

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What little aid many of the homeless receive is being offered by grassroots volunteers who often have no experience. Brandon Darby, interim director of Katrina relief group Common Ground, says the nonprofit has taken numerous calls from the public advocacy office asking for help to find housing for homeless residents.

During one recent week, a volunteer acting as a caseworker assisted a middle-aged diabetic who was facing discharge from a local hospital with nowhere to live, a senior citizen addicted to gambling who had been living in Harrah's casino before she was turned out, and a mother who had spent weeks living in a car with her teenage son. The mother had recently moved back into her flood-damaged house in the city's hard-hit Ninth Ward when a tornado knocked it off its foundation in mid-February.

"By law the federal government was supposed to give people made homeless by Katrina 18 months of assistance, but in many, many cases that never happened," says Mr. Darby, who has set up a toll-free number so Common Ground can take calls directly from the homeless and accept donations for their support. "Many landlords will not work with people who have FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] vouchers, because they're afraid FEMA will not pay. There are almost no services in this city for people with severe disabilities. Rates of mental illness have gone through the roof, but there are no psychiatric beds available.... Everyone has their own problems to deal with, and it's hard to find someone to help them."

City opens new homeless housing facility

New Orleans did mark a step of progress last month when it opened a 40-unit supportive housing facility for the homeless and disabled through a private-public partnership. "This is a great day in the city of New Orleans," Mayor Nagin said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

New Orleans resident Jackie Silverman, a member of Congregation Gates of Prayer Synagogue, helped establish one of the two small shelters Common Ground opened last year, providing 30 beds for the homeless. She now volunteers as a lay caseworker with other congregants from her synagogue. "We ask them where they were before the storm, where they are now, and where they want to go."

Several homeless residents in the Ninth Ward have joined Common Ground's staff, living in dorm facilities with volunteers from across the country while they await housing. Al Bass, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, returned four months after Katrina with nowhere to live but his flooded-out home. "I was in my house during the storm when 12 feet of water came in, and that's what I came back to," says Bass, who lived in the gutted-out property until last April.