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Back to New Orleans, but no home

Despite more rentals opening up, lower-income former residents find they're now too expensive.

By Bill SasserContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 2007



New Orleans

Over the past 10 months, Steven Gioustover has slept on the floor of a friend's federally provided trailer, in a shuttered elementary school, and on a cot at the Ozmann Inn, one of only two operating homeless shelters for men in New Orleans.

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With just over 200 beds available in a city with more than 10,000 homeless, he's fortunate to have a roof over his head. A growing number of homeless take shelter in a plaza each night – under a park gazebo, in nylon tents erected on the lawn, and under the eaves of nearby state office buildings in an encampment that's sprung up right in front of City Hall. The camp, now several months old, is emblematic of the dilemma facing New Orleans as it tries to rebuild after hurricane Katrina flooded large swaths of its neighborhoods in 2005.

An ongoing housing shortage, high rents, rising costs of living, and a dearth of federal and state housing assistance have made it difficult for many of the city's lower-income returnees to find affordable rental housing. Last January, the city had more than 12,000 homeless people in New Orleans – double the number that were here before Katrina. In a city that is still only 60 percent of its former size, if anything, the homeless population is growing, homeless advocates say.

The camp in Duncan Plaza has become a distinct embarrassment for the city, while similar homeless encampments have sprung up under the Interstate 10 overpass just a few blocks away. "Children and the elderly should never be living in a situation like this," says city Councilwoman Stacy Head. "Conditions are not safe, and we need to find an alternative. Then there may be a move by the city to disperse the camp."

Last month, Ms. Head introduced a resolution that was passed by the council, which urged Congress to immediately allot money for 3,000 vouchers that would provide supportive housing for people with disabilities. A request for such assistance was included in plans for the Road Home recovery program, the state's plan for spending billions of dollars of federal recovery aid, but was not funded in the original bill.

In recent weeks, emergency shelter in motel rooms has been given to more than 70 "high-risk" people living in the plaza.

But the number of homeless at Duncan Plaza and elsewhere is likely to rise, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency completes its plans to close the remaining FEMA trailer parks that have provided housing to thousands of city residents who lost their homes in the flood. In October, FEMA sent notices to 15 trailer parks that the sites would be closed this month. On Dec. 1, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took over federal housing assistance programs in the Gulf region from the agency.

"People are being moved out of trailer parks largely because of safety issues," says Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD, referring to the formaldehyde fumes from building materials in the trailers that have sickened some occupants. "But the trailer parks were always intended to be temporary housing, not permanent homes," he says.

Citing the more than $10 billion in federal aid that Louisiana has received for hurricane recovery, and the $12.2 million in funding that HUD provided in the past year for assisting the homeless in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, Mr. Sullivan says it was up to state and local governments to use their funding to come up with effective housing programs.

The slow pace of housing recovery can, in part, be attributed to necessary oversight and planning, he adds. "A lot of money is already there, but it's like trying to drink from a fire hose – you can't just start spending it without good plans, or the process is opened up to abuse or fraud."

With federal assistance, a state-run small-property recovery program has done much in the past year to help landlords in New Orleans repair rental housing, and "for rent" signs are seen in many neighborhoods. But with landlords charging higher rents, many of the homeless can't afford to live in them.

"For many people returning, the Big Easy has become the big squeeze," says Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a coalition of nonprofits serving the homeless. "This is a much different city now than it was before the storm." One reason: The family and neighborhood ties that once offered a safety net are now mostly gone.

"I had never been homeless in my life before now," said Mr. Gioustover, who owned a car, earned a decent living as a carpenter, and lived in a two-bedroom apartment in New Orleans East, a suburb devastated by Katrina, before losing it all to 15 feet of floodwater. "If I had family here like I did before Katrina, I'd be staying with them. But all of my family lost their houses in the flood, and they're still in Texas and Georgia. I'm the only one back."

The city is working with nonprofit agencies to address homelessness, according to Mayor Ray Nagin. He said in a statement that the city's office of public advocacy has aided more than a thousand homeless people in the past year. The mayor urged state officials to speed up the delivery of promised funding for a few hundred housing subsidy vouchers, which nonprofit agencies will use to help the homeless in the plaza.

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