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City Takes Action to Address High Rates of Homelessness in New Orleans

2008 photo of the B.W. Cooper housing development in New Orleans. Photo by Jane Henrici.

By Nina Pasha

On November 29, the Associated Press reported that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD) announced a new ten-year plan to address the major homeless problem in New Orleans. The plan includes establishing a New Orleans Interagency Council on Homelessness, opening a 24-7 homeless center in the Veterans Affairs Department hospital building, and adding 2,115 permanent beds for homeless individuals and 516 for families.

Public Housing Demolished, Leaving Homeless Vulnerable

A lack of affordable housing is one factor that may have increased the homeless population in New Orleans, which has one of the largest rates of homelessness in the country. As IWPR and others have reported, 4,500 units of traditional public housing in New Orleans were demolished in the years immediately following Katrina, despite being structurally-sound and while the city had a great need for homes.

Estimates released by UNITY of Greater New Orleans show there are 9,165 residents in Orleans and Jefferson parishes considered homeless by HUD’s definition. The number of homeless individuals has increased by 70 percent since prior to Hurricane Katrina. Similar to the national average, women make up roughly a third of the New Orleans area homeless.

Over half of homeless women in New Orleans live on the streets or in abandoned buildings, where they are at special risk of being assaulted or sexually attacked. In contrast to the national average, a greater proportion (9 percent) of those left homeless in the New Orleans area are over the age of 62—over four times the national average (2 percent).

IWPR Research on Status of Women Post-Katrina

IWPR has been publishing material on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on women’s housing, poverty status, and other related issues since the immediate aftermath of the 2005 storm and flooding. New reports to be released in early 2012 are based on in-depth and long-term qualitative research about women who were residents of New Orleans public housing prior to Hurricane Katrina and their lives in the years just after Katrina in the cities of Baton Rouge, Houston, and New Orleans.

I assisted with the research on women who were residents of New Orleans public housing prior to Hurricane Katrina for these reports. As a result, I read fascinating stories that illustrated the needs of many women and families following the disaster.

One participant explained her public housing unit had a sense of a community and it should not be demolished because everyone who lived there “didn’t have anything and if we had anything we’d been gotten out.” Another participant said public housing provided stability and confidence to those who could not afford to rent or buy housing.

The majority of residents who were renting units in public housing prior to Hurricane Katrina were low-income, single-parent, black women and their families. These populations were directly affected when the buildings were torn down. In fact, New Orleans’s homeless plan notes that many of families who are currently homeless are African American and lived in rental housing (public or commercial) prior to Hurricane Katrina. The city also spotlights the New Orleans Women’s Shelter as one of the participants in the new plan, acknowledging the specific needs of homeless women.

For more information on IWPR’s research on the status of women following Hurricane Katrina, please visit our website.

Nina Pasha is a Research Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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