Wednesday, July 29, 2009

United Nations Group Gets a Look at Post-Katrina Housing Woes

United Nations group gets a look at post-Katrina housing woes

by Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday July 28, 2009, 7:00 AM

Mickey Palmer, who traveled the world for 20 years as a merchant seaman shipping out of the Port of New Orleans, welcomed international visitors on Monday morning to his home, an abandoned building scattered with Katrina-era debris.

As a cool wind blew through a large open window, Palmer, 57, puffed on a cigarette and tried to stay positive.

"This is a good place to squat, as we call it, " he told international housing expert Leilani Farha, who led a small entourage to New Orleans this week to interview people who have lost affordable housing and others who may lose their homes.

Farha, who leads a low-income-housing advocacy group in Ontario, Canada, is part of an advisory group that reports to UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency charged with monitoring poverty and housing. The group spent Monday morning with outreach workers from UNITY of Greater New Orleanswho tromp through blighted buildings searching for disabled people who need help. The group will publish a report online after their visit.

Representatives of the United Nations have shown special interest in New Orleans since Katrina, with some U.N. officials using the storm as an opportunity to critique the U.S. government's policies toward poor and minority groups.

The group's forays haven't been without controversy. Last year, two U.N. specialists attracted international attention when they said the federal government's response violated an international treaty on racism. But the authors of the resolution also acknowledged they hadn't visited New Orleans since the storm.

On Monday, UNITY officials told the latest U.N. visitors that they believe 6,000 squatters may live in the city's more than 65,000 abandoned structures.

Over the next few days, the advisory group also will meet with public officials, former public-housing residents from the demolished "Big Four" complexes, low-income people struggling with higher post-Katrina rents and Mid-City residents whose houses are in the footprint of the proposed LSU hospital. At the end of the week, the group will travel to Washington to meet with federal disaster-recovery officials.

On Monday, the visitors looked in shock at the conditions inside Palmer's Mid-City squat. Before Katrina, Palmer, a handyman, rented an apartment nearby for $450 a month. Then his rent nearly doubled and floodwaters swallowed up his uninsured possessions, including a truck filled with tools.

Farha and another housing expert, Leticia Osorio, also took pages of notes outside an abandoned home in Gert Town where Naomi Burkhalter and Grace Bailey live. Burkhalter, 49, uses a wheelchair because of a leg injury that hasn't properly healed. Bailey, 57, had her jaw broken in an attack a few months ago, leaving her with a steel plate in her face and an oozing facial infection.

In a nearby decrepit house, two other homeless women cited similar medical woes. Peaches Jackson, 42, suffers seizures because she lost 20 percent of her brain in an accident 10 years ago, she said. Charlene Stewart, 35, is scheduled for abdominal surgery next week for a bacterial infection.

Bailey walked back to the room she sleeps in. She keeps the window there closed at night or else mosquitoes devour her, she said. When it rains, the roof leaks generously onto the rotting floorboards.

She didn't always live like this, she said quietly, talking about her work in the service industry and the low rent she'd paid nearly all her adult life.

To each person, Farha asked, "What do you need?" and jotted down their replies in her notebook.

Riding in the van back to UNITY's offices, Farha said that, in many ways, the homeless New Orleanians she'd met were like the homeless people she'd met in other countries. But most of the squatters she'd just met were "in decent places before Katrina, " she said.

"It's unacceptable, " she said, saying she believed that the federal government had a responsibility to see that people had not ended up in a worse place because of the disaster.

UNITY head Martha Kegel explained that the homeless people they met were placed on a waiting list and given priority according to how likely they were to die without housing. Quite a few already had died waiting for housing, she said.

"Is there a quick way to house people so that they're not dying on a list?" Farha asked. "What is the policy answer to address the immediate need?

Katy Reckdahl can be reached at or 504.826.3396.

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