Homeless and with a disability in New Orleans

Of 118 New Orleans residents left homeless in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a high percentage were persons with disabilities underserved by both government and private social service agencies. Many of these homeless will not go to shelters due to personal or medical limitations. Other solutions must be found which incorporate employment opportunities, physical and mental health care, chemical dependency treatment and life skills training.

A survey was carried out in February 2008 by a consortium of organizations, including UNITY of Greater New Orleans and the Common Ground Institute of New York. The survey was conducted at the Claiborne Encampment, an area beneath the Claiborne Avenue Bridge in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. There an estimated 150 displaced persons currently live in tents or sleep on mats in the open air. A copy of the press release announcing the findings can be found on UNITY’s web page: www.unitygno.org.

Common Ground Institute reported that, “Before Hurricane Katrina, one person camped there; afterward, an entire tent city of 150 lived under that bridge. Fully 80 percent have disabilities, yet many of them work and pay taxes.”

Twenty-three of those surveyed had three or more disabling conditions. Another 20 were listed as having two disabling conditions, including substance addiction, mental illness, or a physical disability. Sixty percent of those surveyed were displaced from housing due to Katrina; another 30 percent became homeless after losing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance. Of those surveyed, 75 percent had no health insurance. Nineteen people surveyed were veterans, but only three of the veterans had VA benefits and another eight had VA insurance.

“The strategy for the Claiborne camp must address the fact that most of its residents have mental or physical disabilities,” said Martha J. Kegel, Executive Director of UNITY, as quoted in The Times-Picayune on February 28, 2008. “Many disabled people will not go to emergency shelter, cannot sleep with dozens of people in an enclosed room or cannot comply with shelter rules…. Most of the Claiborne residents lived in the New Orleans area before Katrina. They wanted to come home, even though they have no home. We resolve to keep working in partnership with the entire community until the most vulnerable of our neighbors again has a home.”

UNITY staff member Frances Misenheimer pointed to the Duncan Plaza Re-Housing Initiative as a hopeful example for the Claiborne Encampment. In November and December 2007, 278 people living in tents and cardboard houses in New Orleans’ Duncan Plaza were moved to short-term or permanent housing within a four-week period by a consortium that included federal, state, and city government agencies, 27 nonprofit organizations, and 69 community partners, including churches, hotels, and foundations. Currently, according to Kegel, 233 of Duncan Plaza’s former residents are living in their own homes, most receiving assistance to help them pay rent, with social service agencies cooperating to provide disability and employment services to those who qualified.

Nonetheless, the need for housing remains high. Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans, wrote in the April 2008 issue of Coastal Post Online that, “Government reports confirm that half of the working poor, elderly and disabled that lived in New Orleans before Katrina has 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…. Before Katrina, there were 12,870 disabled workers receiving Social Security Disability in New Orleans, now there are 5,350 – 59 percent less.” (www.coastalpost.com/08/04/10.html)

USA Today reported that the “estimated 12,000 homeless accounts for four percent of New Orleans’ estimated population of 302,000… The New Orleans’ rate is more than four times that of most U.S. cities, which have homeless populations of less than one percent.” (Rick Jervis, “New Orleans’ Homeless Rate Swells to 1 in 25,” March 16, 2008)

The Associated Press reported that “hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed 41,000 apartments affordable to people earning less than the area’s median income, and only 43 percent will be rebuilt under federal programs. Prospects are bleakest for those earning less than $26,150….only 16 percent of housing affordable to them is scheduled for federally funded redevelopment.” (John Moreno Gonzales, “U.N. Weighs in against Demolishing Public Housing,” February 28, 2008)

In the face of this overwhelming need, New Orleans area service agencies struggle to provide housing and other services, for both the populations they are serving and their own employees. Suzanne H. Bourgeois, Program Director at Volunteers of America of Greater New Orleans (VOAGNO) said, “As of present, affordable housing is a tremendous issue…Rents are still very high, in some cases tripled after Katrina.”

VOAGNO, a nonprofit faith organization that provides housing and other social services to citizens in need in 16 south Louisiana parishes (www.voagno.org), evacuated more than 125 residents and direct support professionals from supported living houses in New Orleans during Katrina. After successfully overcoming the initial evacuation challenge, the organization was confronted with the longer-term challenge of finding suitable replacement housing for their residents and staff.

Finding housing space is only the first problem New Orleans agencies like VOAGNO have in providing services for persons with disabilities. The second, according to Bourgeois is “lack of direct support workforce. We are not seeing many qualified folks that are interested in the type of dedication this work requires and needs. Weekend shifts are almost impossible to cover. I believe lots of folks can go out into industry and make more money. I also believe we have some capacity issues within our current waiver system. The state [of Louisiana] has released an increase of waiver slots, but providers are having difficulty securing staff.”

The Wage Facts page on the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council Direct Support Professionals website states that “Louisiana ranks last in the nation in direct support professional wages and benefits.” (www.la-dsp.org/dspla.php) As Suzanne Bourgeois added “I do not believe our legislators have a true picture of the important role that direct support staff has…the impact of that on services to those with disabilities.”

Readers who want to help can donate funds to nonprofit and charitable organizations working in south Louisiana, or volunteer with an organization working to alleviate these issues. Most important, though, is to increase public awareness and government attention to this critical situation. Even non-citizens of Louisiana can have a voice by writing to their Congressional representatives and letting them know that providing affordable housing, supported employment and housing initiatives for the city’s most vulnerable, and a living wage for social service employees, is critical to providing a humane environment for all citizens, those with and without disabilities, in New Orleans and around the country.

The dedication of VOAGNO’s direct service providers in New Orleans—themselves rendered homeless by Katrina—to their clients, as well as the critical shortage of housing, has been carefully documented in a 2007 report by the Research and Training Center on Community Living (RTC) at the University of Minnesota, You Know that It’s Got to be Dedication that I am Still Here: The Experiences of Direct Support Professionals during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and Aftermath, and accompanied by an emotional and inspiring video entitled “Higher Ground,” directed by RTC’s Jerry Smith.

The RTC project was undertaken on behalf of VOAGNO and funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR).

ANCOR is distributing the video as part of its National Advocacy Campaign, “You Need to Know Me,” which highlights personal stories of dedication and heroism from direct support professionals around the country. Visit the Campaign’s web page at youneedtoknowme.org.

Readers are also reminded to be prepared for disasters. Reminding us to consider carefully the implications of the New Orleans situation for other communities, Glen W. White, Director of the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas and co-author of the report, Assessing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Persons with Disabilities, www.rtcil.org, wrote recently that “the disaster that struck New Orleans is a ‘canary in the coal mine.’ We have volatility in our lives due to natural events, crumbling infrastructure and more contentious foreign relations. How a disaster impacts people with disabilities can be studied here and proactive steps taken to alleviate in other situations.”