New Orleans Offers Jobs, But No Housing

The city of New Orleans is dealing with a serious homeless problem. Some people who have returned to the city have inadequate shelter, and many of the workers who've come to the city for jobs in the rebuilding effort have nowhere to stay. This new class of homeless people find themselves needing help — at a time when city services and charitable organizations feel they cannot do more.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Now to New Orleans, a kind of place where a jazz band plays at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new condominium and apartment project. And while new housing in the Crescent City is reason to celebrate, rents have doubled and tripled since Hurricane Katrina. As a result, a new class of homeless people is growing at an alarming rate.

Melanie Peeples reports from New Orleans.

MELANIE PEEPLES: It's evening in New Orleans, and as the last light fades from view, four outreach workers from the homeless advocacy group called Unity of Greater New Orleans pull tins of Vienna sausages and packs of crackers from the back of a van and carry them into the ruins of a burned out chapel.

Unidentified Man: How are you doing? (Unintelligible).

PEEPLES: On the floor wrapped up in blankets is Umberto Alvarado(ph), who came here from Texas because he'd heard there was money to be made rebuilding New Orleans.

Mr. UMBERTO ALVARADO (Homeless Person): I was supposed to come here and do better. But looks like…

PEEPLES: He looks around at the charred walls and burnt faces of saints.

Mr. ALVARADO: (Spanish spoken).

PEEPLES: A different story is what he found, one where his truck was stolen and he got arrested for hanging out in a parking lot while waiting for someone to hire him, which doesn't happen often enough. Now, he's saving every penny he makes to pay his fine so he can go back home.

Across town, Wilbur Smith(ph) is getting ready to settle in to another night spent under an overpass.

Mr. WILBUR SMITH (Homeless Person): Well, I want to get me a place, but I don't have enough money to get a deposit and first month rent.

PEEPLES: Before the hurricane, Smith lived in the Lafitte Housing Project, one of four public housing units the city has not reopened despite being in good shape because the city plans to tear them down.

Emergency shelters are also a problem. As Unity social worker Seamus Roan(ph) points out, what few have reopened don't offer as many beds as they used to.

Mr. SEAMUS ROAN (Social Worker, Unity for Greater New Orleans): So the resources for a homeless individual probably at best half of what they were before, and yet there's twice as many homeless people today as there were.

PEEPLES: New Orleans has always had a high poverty rate, but now, Roan says, is not the time to be poor in New Orleans.

Mr. ROAN: You know, I think everyone should have the right to come back, and I'm glad that people are coming back. The city won't come back without the people. But I try to caution people that a lot of the services that helped keep people from being homeless beforehand aren't all up and running. And if you're a person who may have been very close to homelessness beforehand, you're very likely to end up homeless now.

PEEPLES: Delilah Howard(ph) never thought she'd be homeless. Two months ago, she came back to town and reclaimed her old janitorial job, but she could not reclaim her old apartment.

Ms. DELILAH HOWARD (Homeless Person): Oh, I will pay $450 for a two-bedroom. Now, that same apartment want $800 for a two-bedroom. I can't afford that.

PEEPLES: And that was a lucky find. Most two-bedrooms start around $1,200, and there are still dice(ph). Howard has never lived in public housing, and even if she wanted to, she couldn't start now. The Housing Authority of New Orleans isn't accepting new applications. Delilah and her sister, who works at McDonalds, have been staying in a hotel that Unity's been paying for. But their days there are numbered.

They're trying to find a place together and have a voucher from FEMA to pay first month's rent and a deposit. But the classifieds are filled with ads that say, no voucher. Howard misses Texas where she and her kids stayed after Katrina.

Ms. HOWARD: They furnished the house; they were so good to us. I mean, it was wonderful out there.

PEEPLES: But as a single mom with sickle cell anemia, Delilah needs to be near her extended family so they can help take care of her kids when she's in the hospital. Besides, she reminds her big sister, Renee(ph), it's terrible to be homesick for New Orleans.

Ms. HOWARD: It's home. It's home.

RENEE (Delilah Howard's sister): Yeah.

Ms. HOWARD: It's home. I mean, it's - you can't describe it. But, I mean, it is home. And this is a really great place to live. It really is. I mean…

RENEE: No, it used to be a great place to live.

Ms. HOWARD: Well, yeah.

RENEE: It used to be a great place to live. But not now.

PEEPLES: They've both come back looking for home, looking for the lives they once knew, but finding they might not be able to get them back.

For NPR News, I'm Melanie Peeples in New Orleans.

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