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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What To Do With 12,000 Homeless

by Larry Lagarde

Two years ago, Hurricane Katrina suddenly made my family homeless. That disaster caused my life to take a different direction and I'm a better person for it. Others have not been so fortunate.

Here's an untidy scenario. You're the mayor of a community with 12,000 homeless. It's winter. A cold front is coming. Your city is broke and no one on the federal or state level appears ready or interested in helping to resolve the crisis. Better yet, the state is preparing to boot 150 of those homeless folks out of their orderly but illegal squatter's encampment in a park in front of City Hall. What would you do?

This is a real situation playing out in New Orleans right now.

The Big Easy is awash with homeless. No one knows the exact number but conservative estimates peg the homeless at @ 12,000. Most are pre-Katrina residents whose homes were flooded for weeks by Hurricane Katrina. Until recently, some were living in FEMA trailer parks that have been closed on short notice. Some are mentally ill. Some are living on the street because their wages, Social Security or disability check is too small to cover New Orleans' storm hiked rents. Some are over 80 yrs old.

The State of Louisiana is adamant. The homeless encampment at Duncan Plaza must go. The space is needed to secure demolition equipment and the state will wait no longer. Never mind that this homeless encampment has housed 100-150 people for months. Never mind that most of the homeless shelters or beds for the mentally ill are gone due to Katrina.

It appears that UNITY of Greater New Orleans, an award-winning collaborative of 60 local housing agencies, will pull off a Christmas miracle with housing for all the Duncan Plaza residents. What about the others though - the 100-150 living under New Orleans' elevated expressways, the rest of the 12,000 living in cars, gutted buildings, parks or a cardboard box behind a building?

Shelter is a basic human need. When governmental officials would prefer to coldly ignore people obviously in need and simultaneously bulldoze public housing projects that could immediately house them, something is very, very wrong.

Tomorrow: an innovative, mobile shelter housing project in Canada

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