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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.

Who’s Doing the Dirty Work in New Orleans?

Playground being built
A new playground being built by volunteers in New Orleans (Photo by Casey Clevenger)

Last month, I had the opportunity to take five days away from work and studies to volunteer for relief work in New Orleans, Louisiana through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) “50@50” program. The trip was part of JVC’s effort to bring fifty volunteers to assist in relief projects in the gulf region during five separate weeks of service. The theme of the week was “Racial Justice” and in addition to working on various reconstruction projects, our group of twelve participated in a larger dialogue on issues of racism at a local and national level, attending a talk by Tavis Smiley on his book, Covenant with Black America.
While my current work at IWPR and graduate studies in Public Policy and Women’s Studies at George Washington University are focused on improving the status of women, minorities, and low-income populations in the United States, research and academic engagement in these issues are not always enough to make me feel truly connected and actively engaged in problems of poverty, racism, and systematic injustices in the U.S. Taking time out of my regular schedule to step away from books, policies, and computers, and contribute to “hands-on” reconstruction efforts was invaluable.
Our group had the chance to spend time with residents, listen to their stories, and show our concern to those lives disrupted by the destruction of Katrina. As we talked to long-term volunteers, cleared storm drains, helped gut houses and sort clothing with Common Ground, and assisted Fanny Mae employees build a school playground with KaBOOM, it was clear that relief to the most vulnerable communities of New Orleans is being provided by volunteers and nonprofit organizations.
As I have learned in various volunteer positions, including the year I spent as a Jesuit Volunteer (2004-2005), the work of social justice is not complete without community, solidarity, individual commitment, and an awareness of the important policy issues at stake. However, as volunteers and as citizens, we must also question the role of our government in providing leadership and executing policies that take into account all populations of our country. We must hold our government accountable for its decisions. Rebuilding our own communities and inner cities, addressing injustices within our own fifty states, must be a national responsibility and priority if the U.S. is to legitimately support democracy building in other nations.
This is why IWPR’s work on the effects of Hurricane Katrina is so important. Returning from New Orleans, I am grateful to be working for an organization actively involved in the dissemination of research on gender, race, and poverty in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. IWPR’s reports on the women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were the first reports to look at the impact of Hurricane Katrina and specifically address its effects on impoverished women in the area. In addition to its two-part briefing paper, The Women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast: Multiple Disadvantages and Key Assets for Recovery, IWPR is interviewing people impacted by Katrina in order to make policy recommendations that will take into account their realities and better inform the recovery process.
It has been over a year and a half since Hurricane Katrina struck and there is an enormous amount of work left to be done, but I am glad to know that in advocating for policies that promote economic justice, IWPR continues to give voice to those still suffering from the devastating effects of the storm.
– Casey Clevenger, IWPR Development Intern

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