NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana—After Hurricane Katrina, Doris Mitchell returned to her flooded home in New Orleans, hoping to repair the place where she’d raised her children. But two years after the hurricane, as she walked to the nearby Magnolia Super Market, she was hit on the head during a botched armed robbery. Mitchell died in the hospital. Her death stopped her application for a grant to rebuild her house.
Her son, Joshua Mitchell, tried to do some work on the home himself, but it hasn’t gone well. He’s lived in the house for the past five years without electricity or running water. That puts Mitchell in a distinct category of post-Katrina squatters, who street-outreach workers describe as “homeless in their own homes.”
“I see it all the time,” says Carol Ramm-Gramenz, Mitchell’s caseworker for the St. Bernard Project, one of a handful of nonprofit rebuilding agencies still trying to get New Orleans-area homeowners back into their homes 10 years after Katrina. Many of the individuals who either haven’t been able to return, or who are living without essential utilities are elderly, frail, or mentally disabled. Some have received grants to rebuild, others haven't. Nearly all have extremely low incomes. Agencies try to house everyone they can, but the waiting list is years long.
The state-administered Road Home program, financed with grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has handed out $9 billion in rebuilding grants to 119,000 Louisiana homeowners. But thousands of those recipients were never able to finish repairs. There are many reasons for this, but the most common is contractors who took grants and didn’t finish work. Ramm-Gramenz says nine of ten of her cases involve contractor fraud, which ran rampant in the wake of the hurricane, especially with older people.
“It breaks my heart,” says Travers Kurr, a street-outreach worker for UNITY of Greater New Orleans, who, since Katrina, has worked with hundreds of people living in squalor in their own flood-damaged homes, often surrounded by mildewed photographs of happier days.
Despite their limitations, some of these people may have been capable of living on their own before the flood. Neighbors say they used to see Angel Boutte outside of her home and they often brought her plate dinners. But in recent years, she’s become a recluse within her family’s house, which Boutte says has barely been touched since floodwaters submerged it and she was rescued from the roof by helicopters (records indicate Boutte did not receive a Road Home grant).
Recently, Boutte, 52, peeked through a window screen that’s ripped in the middle, showing her black dress and a large crucifix. She’s lived in the once-tidy brick house since she was about six, she says. Her mother died in 1984, and her father died in 1998. And while the house may look bleak now, Boutte remains confident that people will come to her aid.
An analysis by The Data Center found that 25 percent of residential home addresses in New Orleans were still blighted or vacant in 2010, five years after the storm. Since that time, the city has demolished a total of 4,106 buildings through a careful blight-abatement process, but tens of thousands of empty properties remain.
Boutte’s property, for instance, has been cited for a long list of code violations involving rodents, high weeds, sanitation, and general neglect since April 2009.
Hers is now one of 3,000 lots where city workers regularly cut weeds while properties move through the city’s blight-reduction hearing process. Some owners comply with codes at this point. But Boutte is now facing lien foreclosure and a sheriff’s auction of her house, in which the sheriff’s department gives sales proceeds to the original property owner after deducting liens, delinquent taxes, and other costs.
A few years ago, a UNITY team found a young man with profound developmental delays living in a similar house. It was like a time capsule dating back a few years to the day the man’s father had died. In the years since, vines had overtaken the roof, pictures hung on the wall had curled and faded in the heat. As Kurr looked at the withered contents of the house, “I could almost feel how his life had changed since his father died. But he was tied to a place so important to him.”
In many of these cases, people ended up alone and homeless after their caregivers died or became sick after Katrina. For a few years after the storm, mental-health teams would routinely check the Greyhound bus depot, looking for disabled people arriving back from evacuations alone. With 80 percent of the city flooded and affordable housing almost non-existent, homelessness grew exponentially, peaking at an estimated 11,619 people in early 2007. Massive public camps sprouted up in parks and under freeway bridges.
The crisis eased as more housing re-opened. Yet still today, with rents nearly double what they were, homelessness in the city is a crisis that most affects disabled people, the elderly, and parents of young children. Roughly 12 percent of those living in poverty in New Orleans face homelessness each year, according to UNITY data.
Kurr points to a corner of a bedroom in Uptown New Orleans. “This is where I found him on a freezing night in January … He’s so small that I didn’t know if it was a person or just a pile of clothes.”
Now Kurr checks in regularly with the man he found, Abbott Roland, 59, a former maintenance man who suffers from blood clots and fluid build-up that swells his legs like flesh-colored balloons.
Five years ago, Roland took a bus back to New Orleans from Katrina exile in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I actually walked from the Greyhound station all the way up here—I could walk then,” he says. “And once I got here, onto my old block, I knew I was home.” Not long afterward, however, his legs started giving out on him. He tried to keep working but the pain was too great. About a year ago, he ended up making a home on a mattress he’d pulled into an abandoned house.
Roland is still home, in a way. Despite his squalid surroundings, he’s beloved to neighbors who know him as “Abbie,” the cheerful neighbor with an infectious smile. One neighbor braids his hair for him. Others bring him groceries occasionally, though he would never ask. Last week, the woman down the block promised to find him a pair of size 12 wide slippers for his badly swollen feet.
Kurr is now close to securing some housing for Roland. But because the need is so great in New Orleans, homeless people are housed based on assessments that determine their chance of death if they remain homeless. For those like Roland, who are not at death’s door, the process is much slower.
Roland tries to put a good face on it. But it’s not the sort of life he ever imagined for himself. He was raised in a stable home, then went to work and provided for himself. Until now. “It’s hard to be here, period,” he said. “I don’t like it. But I don’t have no other choice right now.”