RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In New Orleans, groups that work with the homeless say the city's homeless population has doubled since Hurricane Katrina. That's the problem. Here is one solution: thousands of new houses and apartments are being built for the most chronically homeless. There's another problem - they can't move in.
NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Austin Earl is so poor he had to find a spot of grass in a city park to sleep at night. But even when you possess almost nothing, it's still not safe to live on the streets of New Orleans.
Mr. AUSTIN EARL (Homeless, New Orleans, Louisiana): I got robbed about a week ago in broad daylight, coming from the grocery store, two youngsters.
SHAPIRO: What did they take?
Mr. EARL: Well, they took the money I had, took my cigarettes and my lighter. I found my wallet about a block away. You know, to rob the homeless is something I really couldn't understand, but there's guys that does it.
SHAPIRO: Austin Earl got a mental illness, but it's been a while since he used the medications that help him. He's 52 and he's been on the streets for four years, even before Hurricane Katrina. That storm destroyed almost all the city's affordable housing.
So New Orleans came up with a bold plan to house the most desperate and hardest-to-help homeless people like Austin Earl. It's building thousands of new apartments and houses.
Mr. CRAIG KUCHUVA(ph) (Developer): Watch your step.
SHAPIRO: And the first of them are going to be ready in the next few weeks, like this cozy three-bedroom house just down the street from the gleaming white Louisiana Superdome.
Mr. GARY GIBBS(ph) (Developer): Bathroom.
Mr. KUCHUVA: Closet space as well.
SHAPIRO: Developers Gary Gibbs and Craig Kuchuva got tax breaks to build this house. In return, they agreed to give low rents to the poor and to set aside at least five percent of their units to the most chronically homeless.
But the developers don't have to hold these units open forever. If homeless people don't apply, they can start renting to other people with low incomes.
Mr. KUCHUVA: As soon as the doors open, they will rent.
Mr. GIBBS: As the housing becomes available, there's really no place for people to be here right now with the devastation from the flood. I mean, once we start building these, we'll be able - people will come back.
SHAPIRO: You have no trouble filling these up?
Mr. KUCHUVA: No, no.
Mr. GIBBS: No, not at all.
SHAPIRO: Congress gave those tax breaks to developers. And they gave millions of dollars to provide the social services the homeless people need when they move into the new apartments. There's one problem - they're not moving in.
Congress never got around to coming up with the third part of the program.
Ms. ANN O'HARA (Co-Founder, Technical Assistance Collaborative): What we don't have are the rent subsidies that will help people pay their rent. That's our problem.
SHAPIRO: Ann O'Hara helps run a national housing group for people with disabilities called the Technical Assistance Collaborative. For the last two and a half years, she's made dozens of trips from Boston to help Louisiana build these homes.
Ms. O'HARA: We're at an incredibly critical point, because if we can get the funding for the rent subsidies from Congress, then Louisiana will have a 3,000-unit permanent supportive housing system that will be in place for years and years and years. If we don't get these subsidies, then the whole program could fall apart.
SHAPIRO: Louisiana lawmakers believe Congress will come up with the $70 million this spring. But that's what they expected last year, and the year before.
On this day, Ann O'Hara visits a man who's waiting for one of those apartments.
Mr. BENJAMIN PARNELL: Yeah, what am I saying. Let me ask you this.
Ms. O'HARA: Sure.
Mr. PARNELL: You can answer this question.
Ms. O'HARA: I hope so.
SHAPIRO: Benjamin Parnell sits outside to smoke. He runs a plastic comb through his long black hair and beard. He's 38 and blind.
Mr. PARNELL: What is it like to see nowadays? I've been like this 15 years -seeing black. What's it like to see nowadays?
Ms. O'HARA: Well, today the sky is blue with a little bit of white clouds, kind of underneath the blue.
Mr. PARNELL: It must be beautiful.
Ms. O'HARA: It is.
Mr. PARNELL: God's creation's awesome, yeah.
Ms. O'HARA: It is.
Mr. PARNELL: Air smells fresh out here, boy.
Ms. O'HARA: Yeah.
Mr. PARNELL: But I'm going to tell you something, Ann. It must be beautiful to see, you know.
Ms. O'HARA: I bet it would be great if you had your own place to live, too, right, Benjamin?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PARNELL: Yeah.
SHAPIRO: This place where Parnell lives is a nursing home. He's got a room with dull cinderblock walls and a flimsy pink curtain to separate him from the elderly man in the next bed.
Before Hurricane Katrina, Parnell shared a house with friends. He cooked for himself. He had a job. He's living in this nursing home now because he's got no other place to go.
So it's like you don't really need to be in this place.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PARNELL: You make me laugh, Joe, when you say that. I'd really like my own house. I really would. But I want to get my guitar back, electric guitar to play my slamming Metallica…
(Singing) Landmine has taken my sight, taken my speech, taken my hearing, taken my arms, taken my legs, taken my sight, left me with a life in hell.
(Soundbite of song, "One")
Mr. JAMES HETFIELD (Lead Vocalist, Metallica): (Singing) Landmine has taken my sight, taken my speech, taken my hearing, taken my arms, taken my legs, taken my soul, left me with a life in hell.
SHAPIRO: New Orleans wants to create something called permanent supportive housing. The idea is to give the most chronically homeless people a permanent place to live. Don't require them to first get off drugs or alcohol, or to get their mental illness under control. Just get them off the streets; that's therapeutic in itself, and then offer them whatever services they need to succeed in that house.
It worked for Tyrone Smith(ph). He rents this three-room apartment for $80 a month. It's crowded with the brightly color abstracts and landscapes he paints in the back room.
Mr. TYRONE SMITH: This one is a sunset - of riding over the Causeway Bridge, which is the longest bridge in the United States - 24 miles, correct?
SHAPIRO: After Hurricane Katrina, Smith lived under a bridge. His life was out of control - drugs, depression and confusion. Then a year and a half ago, a group called the UNITY of Greater New Orleans moved him into this apartment - one of just a small number of permanent supportive housing units that already exist.
What was it like when you - the first day you were here?
Mr. SMITH: It was overwhelming. Joy to have a place over your head, to start your life all over again. And after being here for maybe a month, I started soul-searching. I changed my life tremendously because I was depressed, and I just started focusing on my art. And the fun and joy of painting is that you get lost into the world of painting and that keeps your focus on something positive, rather than slipping back into the gutter of the drugs.
SHAPIRO: Smith paints using the name Mouthy. He recently displayed and sold his paintings at two shows. This kind of supportive housing has been used with success in other cities. Now, thousands of homeless people in New Orleans are waiting to try it too.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Another New Orleans man left homeless after Hurricane Katrina was Chris Turnbow. Hear about his family's search for him at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.