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Foreword to Get to the Bricks: The Experiences of Black Women from New Orleans Public Housing after Hurricane Katrina

by Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D.

This foreword appears in the IWPR report, Get to the Bricks: The Experiences of Black Women from New Orleans Public Housing after Hurricane Katrina.

D506 thumbThis report is the culmination of a five-year research project exploring the experiences of women who lived in public housing when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005 and the levees protecting the city of New Orleans failed.  It presents a comprehensive analysis of the interview responses of 184 low-income black women who were living in “The Big Four”—four large housing projects within the city of New Orleans, known as “the Bricks”—and who were displaced by the twin disasters of the hurricane and the flooding. The analysis is based on in-depth ethnographic interviews with the women conducted over a two-year period from 2008 to 2010, when many of them remained displaced in other cities while some had returned to find a different city than the one they had known.

The housing these women had been living in, and which had remained structurally sound during and after the storm, was demolished as part of an effort by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) to replace large public housing projects with mixed-income developments. City services were no longer conveniently concentrated near public housing, and public transit was much curtailed compared with before the storm. For those in other cities, obtaining information about what services and benefits were availabe to them and living in areas with only sparse public transportation were often confusing and disheartening and presented barriers to their ability to settle their children in schools and find employment.  Some displaced women and their children found good opportunities in their new cities, but others longed to return to New Orleans.  All of them experienced the breakup of their long standing family and community networks that had provided them with virutally uncountable forms of support—from child and elder care to sharing food and transportation and job leads.

The failure to coordinate services, to plan for the needs of a vulnerable population, to keep families and neighborhood networks together as much as possible, both during the evacuation and throughout their resettlement (which often required more than one move), and to find ways to enable all those who desired to return to New Orleans to do so constitute a third disaster, one like the failure of the levees of human origin.

Finally, during the period these families were struggling with the immediate aftermath of survival, displacement, and relocation, the United States was also experiencing the worst of the Great Recession with its long and slow recovery, the longest reession since the Great Depression in the 1930s, consituting yet a fourth disaster confronting these women and their families.

Yet through it all, these women showed courage, determination, and resiliency as they sought to keep their children and themselves safe and move on with their lives. Theirs is a remarkable story and I invite you to hear their voices in Get to the Bricks: The Experiences of Black Women from New Orleans Public Housing after Hurricane Katrina.

IWPR researchers, under the able leadership of Dr. Jane Henrici, former study director and now senior research fellow at IWPR, interviewed these women in their homes or other locations in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Houston. The Katrina disapora spread well beyond these relativley nearby cities to virtually every state in the nation. The Katrina migration will likely remain one of the largest and longest lasting in American history that stemmed originally from a natural disaster, compounded as it was by the disasters of human engineering. As such, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, as seen through these women’s eyes, have much to teach us about how we can improve public policy and disaster planning in the years to come.

In addition to Dr. Henrici and the many researchers who assisted her in this work, I would like to single out for thanks Prof. Kai Erikson of Yale University, who invited IWPR to join the Social Science Research Council’s Katrina project and to participate in its deliberations, as well as Josh Jarrett, Program Officer, and Hillary Pennington, Director of Education, Postsecondary Success & Special Initiatives, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who generously provided the funding to conduct the interviews and analyze the results.  Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, a former IWPR study director, also deserves special thanks for her early interviews in post-disaster New Orleans, which alerted us to the depth of the struggles these women were facing.  For all of us at IWPR, this report is a fitting culmination to the research we began on the Monday after the hurricane hit, producing many fact sheets, briefing papers, book chapters, and short reports detailing, through both quantitative and qualitative analysis, the conditions faced by the women of New Orleans both before and after the storm.  We wish for them and their families a secure and successful future. And it is our hope that their voices will have lasting impact on public policy.

Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is the President and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Read the full report, Get to the Bricks: The Experiences of Black Women from New Orleans Public Housing after Hurricane Katrina, at iwpr.org.

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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