The Most Terrible Poverty
Below the Belt: A Biweekly Column by NOW President Kim Gandy
October 3, 2007
"Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." -- Mother Teresa
The displaced people of New Orleans know this only too well. For the most part, they were making do on meager wages and often with the help of extended families. They sacrificed and struggled, but at least they had a home in a city they considered their own.
Then Hurricane Katrina struck. Close to 2,000 people died in the Gulf Coast states hit by the storm. New Orleans suffered the greatest loss, largely because the levees failed. More than 200,000 homes and apartments were damaged or destroyed, leaving over 800,000 residents homeless — forced to scatter across the country in search of shelter and jobs.
Looking back, I can't help wondering whether that's exactly what some people wanted.
In 1996, New Orleans had nearly 14,000 units of public housing available to low-income residents. Less than 10 years later, before Katrina hit, New Orleans' public housing was down to half that number.
After Katrina, the Wall Street Journal quoted Republican Richard Baker, a senior member of the House of Representatives from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as saying: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."
Honestly, nothing should surprise us anymore. But if we can't be shocked, we can at least have the decency to be outraged.
Do you remember how we all felt, watching those images on TV two years ago? People packed into the sweltering Superdome and convention center, thirsty, starving, frightened, dying. Begging news reporters to tell the world what was happening.
Many of these same people are still in dire straits, waiting on insurance money for rebuilding — money that may never come because flood insurance companies are blaming the damage on high winds, and the home insurance companies are blaming it on the floods. Some families still hold out hope that they may be allowed to return to homes and apartments that suffered little damage but remain boarded up by the government anyway. Many of these homes are filled with people's personal belongings, clothes, family pictures and precious memorabilia -- items they may never see again.
Recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave final approval for the demolition of 4,500 public housing units, more than half of the total remaining units in the city. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Bush administration is opposed to a key portion of the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery bill — the part that mandates replacement of these soon-to-be-demolished government-subsidized apartments. That portion of the bill, supported by NOW and co-sponsored by Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), was also rejected by Louisiana's other Senator, David Vitter, who said a one-for-one rebuilding requirement would "re-create the New Orleans housing projects exactly as they were," which is a complete misstatement of the bill's actual requirement.
If the demolition of public housing continues in New Orleans, without replacement, the availability of housing for low-income families will have been reduced by 85 percent during the last decade. Vouchers that are supposed to help displaced New Orleanians pay rent are proving to be insufficient. Quite simply, low-income people — many of whom are single mothers and their children — are being shut out and priced out of New Orleans. And with so much public housing being boarded up or torn down, there aren't enough apartments in the city that will even accept the HUD vouchers (which don't cover utility bills, as public housing did) from those who are trying to return. Not to mention that people who have homes to rebuild can't do so, because they have nowhere to live while rebuilding. Talk about feeling unwelcome in your own hometown.
And what about the 82,000 people who continue to live (if you can call it that) in emergency trailers across the region? These trailers, supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), were not built for long-term occupancy, and now the residents, especially the kids, are getting sick.
Why? It turns out that the floors and cabinets in the trailers were built with particle board containing formaldehyde. CBS news reported that under hot, humid conditions, formaldehyde sends off toxic fumes that are especially harmful to young lungs. There are no federal standards for formaldehyde in home construction, but the Environmental Protection Agency recommends a limited workplace exposure of .1 parts per million. CBS tested a trailer and found a level of formaldehyde 70 percent higher — with inhabitants being exposed 24 hours per day. CBS News also reported on an internal FEMA document that cites cancer as a potential job hazard for those just inspecting the trailers.
In addition, many of these trailers are lined up in "trailer parks" that make the much derided public housing towers seem glamorous by comparison. The trailers are tiny, the parks smell of the sewer, heavily armed police frighten residents, and children have nowhere to play.
As we asked two years ago, can this be the United States of America? Are poor people, particularly poor people of color, being intentionally driven out of New Orleans, left to fend for themselves in the worst of conditions?
There are some people who will never care. To them, the poor are a problem to be swept under the rug, not people who deserve a hand up. People who want to make money off the backs of the poor, but otherwise ignore them, will probably always exist. But we don't have to vote them into office. Let's show them the door.
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