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Four years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has regained about 75 percent of its pre-storm population, and there are signs of economic progress. Still, of those people who stayed in New Orleans or have since returned home, thousands are now homeless. Some are in shelters, but as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, others live in the city's more than 65,000 abandoned buildings.
KATHY LOHR: New Orleans is rebuilding its arts and tourism venues. The Mahalia Jackson Theater is back. The World War II Museum is expanding. And last week, Mayor Ray Nagin announced a new $165 million theme park in New Orleans East, one of the most damaged areas of the city.
Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans, Louisiana): Ladies and gentlemen, little ones, I am proud to announce that Nickelodeon and Southern Star Amusement have signed a licensing agreement to locate the first outdoor, standalone Nickelodeon theme park right here in New Orleans at the site of the former Six Flags location.
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
LOHR: But away from the fanfare, a shadowy second society exists in New Orleans. The recovery is patchy with some areas almost totally recovered and others barely touched. Since Katrina, homelessness in the city has doubled to an estimated 12,000. About half are now living in abandoned homes and office buildings.
Ms. GRACE BAILEY(ph): (Unintelligible).
LOHR: Grace Bailey lives in the remains of a four-room house with two other squatters. They sleep on tattered mattresses or on the floor. Part of the roof is missing, so it has rained inside and now the leak has spread to Bailey's bedroom.
Ms. BAILEY: Back in (unintelligible), I had a two-bedroom house and a bath-and-a-half round there. And to be here, you know, it's depressing. It's really, really depressing.
LOHR: It's late at night, but still hot and sticky in the city. Bailey and the others here, not far from Tulane University, have rigged up electricity. Unlike most, they have a fan, some dim lamps and a small hot plate on the floor where noodles are cooking. There is no water, but Bailey says they fill up buckets from neighbors to flush the toilet and to clean themselves up.
And you bathe? How do you bathe?
Ms. BAILEY: In that little bucket that we made for a bucket of water for now. Stand up in there, it's like taking a shower.
LOHR: Before Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav hit, Bailey says, she had a job at the shrimp factory. But she lost the job and then her home.
Mr. MIKE MILLER (Social Worker): Here we go. (Unintelligible).
LOHR: Walking through darkened abandoned buildings with broken glass has become a fulltime job for Mike Miller. We head up a dark, moldy stairwell.
Mr. MILLER: Hello. Hello. Homeless Outreach. Anybody home? They usually go into the buildings like this.
LOHR: Since December, armed only with flashlights, Miller and Shamus Rohn with Unity of Greater New Orleans have searched more than 1,300 vacant buildings for evidence of squatters.
Mr. MILLER: Open doors is what you're always afraid of, you know?
(Soundbite of knocking)
Mr. MILLER: Hello. Anybody home?
LOHR: This building on Canal Street was once the city hall annex. A young woman was found dead inside last month. On the third floor, we see mattresses, newspapers, empty liquor bottles and huge piles of trash, evidence that squatters were here.
Ms. MARTHA KEGEL (Executive Director, Unity of Greater New Orleans): And it should come as no surprise to anybody that the people that are suffering the most, year four after the storm, are the most disabled, the most vulnerable and the poorest.
LOHR: Martha Kegel is executive director of Unity. She says so far this year, the group has found 270 bedrolls and other signs that people are camping out in empty buildings.
Ms. KEGEL: Right now, we have 850 people on our supportive housing registry. Those are people who are actually on the street in abandoned buildings or in homeless shelters who have severe disabilities. And they're of such severity that they can't remain stably housed unless they had both the subsidy and the case management, very importantly.
LOHR: Kegel says the majority of those in abandoned buildings lived in New Orleans before Katrina. One third got FEMA assistance, but when the money ran out, they ended up on the streets. Another problem is the cost of housing. New Orleans' rents are up about 40 percent since 2005. And housing advocates say many who work in the tourism sector and others with low-paying jobs find it difficult to afford anything.
Dr. ALLISON PLYER (Co-Director, Greater New Orleans Community Data Center): Well, there's not enough affordable housing.
LOHR: Allison Plyer is with the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. In partnership with the Brookings Institution, she puts together an annual assessment of the recovery.
Dr. PLYER: We had rents before the storm that averaged about $500, and now rents for a studio apartment are close to $800. So folks who maybe have the same wage levels, or slightly higher than they did perhaps pre-Katrina, they just cannot afford the rents.
LOHR: Plyer says housing prices will remain higher because the cost of insurance and other housing expenses have gone up. Also, the city's big four public housing complexes were demolished. They are being rebuilt, but no apartments are available yet. Last week, Mayor Nagin told a congressional panel studying housing that much of the federal money allocated for the city's recovery had not yet reached New Orleans.
Ms. LUDMILLA DAMON(ph): Go get it. Yep, he says that's mine.
LOHR: Back on the streets, the Unity outreach team stops by to check on Ludmilla Damon, who everyone calls Jazz(ph). She wasn't displaced by Katrina but moved here after the storm to rescue animals. Jazz got into drugs, and she says that's how she ended up on the street - first under a bridge, then in vacant buildings and now in a four-room apartment.
Ms. DAMON: It's all right. It's a heck of a lot better than we were going through. And to me, it's heaven. To me, it's heaven.
LOHR: Jazz, who's 42 years old, says she wants to find a job and start over.
Ms. DAMON: It's nice to be able to roll over on your bed and know that you're not rolling over because you heard a noise in the hallway that you might have to get up and investigate and, you know - and you know the police aren't coming in to raid. You know, it's really nice, creature comforts people take for granted. I mean, once you get them again, it's - you never forget how wonderful it is.
LOHR: In October, Unity is launching a new program paid for by federal stimulus funds. It will provide short-term rental and job assistance for about 2,000 households in New Orleans, those already homeless and others who are most at risk.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
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