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Give and take

Displaced residents of public housing are being well supplied by FEMA and others, but they are demanding more

Give and take

BATON ROUGE, La. - On 62 acres of rural farmland on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, 436 white travel trailers sit in neat rows on gray gravel behind a chain-link fence near the town's mid-size airport. FEMA calls the trailer park "Renaissance Village," and the agency began moving displaced families in shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck last year.

Many of the families in Renaissance Village come from some of the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans, including the Ninth Ward, Lower Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard Parish. More than a year after Katrina drove the families from their homes, their neighborhoods lie in ruins, and a renaissance seems far away.

Wilbert Ross was one of the first evacuees to settle in the park after fleeing his flooded Ninth Ward home. Today Ross lives in a tiny trailer with a 20-year-old son, a 16-year-old daughter, her 19-month-old baby, and an 18-year-old daughter who's expecting a baby this month.

The trailer is crowded, but Ross doesn't spend much time inside. As president of an advisory council for residents, Ross spends his days walking the hot, shadeless expanse of the village, finding out what residents need and telling them what help is available.

For those who want help there's plenty of it: Catholic Charities has a full-time mobile unit in the park, providing social services, clothing, school supplies, counseling, and "just about anything you might need," Ross told WORLD. Doctors volunteer on a mobile medical unit that provides free health care.

The Louisiana Department of Labor operates a satellite office in the park five days a week, offering job-placement services. A local YWCA offers free child care for working families. FEMA funds job-training courses for residents who need help developing skills, and the agency underwrites public transportation costs.

The park's residents live in the FEMA trailers free of charge for at least 18 months, paying only for propane. FEMA picks up the tab for utilities and operates free laundromats throughout the park. Residents may also collect any additional government benefits for which they're eligible, including food stamps, disability, and unemployment.

But despite the glut of federal and private help, Ross insists the government owes residents more. On a sweltering afternoon under a party tent that serves as the only central meeting place in the park, Ross talks about efforts to demand more cash for displaced residents and to sue government agencies. "The government should give us what by right we deserve," says Ross. "So far they ain't nowhere near it."

Congress recently approved a grant program to give homeowners up to $150,000 to rebuild their homes in the Gulf Coast area. FEMA has doled out more than $4.2 billion in housing assistance that includes rebuilding homes and replacing items lost in the storm. The agency has spent another $1.9 billion to meet other needs of Gulf Coast residents, including medical and transportation expenses.

Ross wants to see the federal government give an additional $40,000 to renters who lost household items in the hardest-hit areas. He points out that victims of 9/11 and other disasters have received large sums of federal aid: "We want to know why we haven't gotten anything."

While schoolchildren file off buses at the park's gate wearing neat uniforms and toting backpacks provided by a local nonprofit group, Ross leans into car windows, telling residents to come to a community meeting that night in the tent. "We're going to talk about the lawsuit," he says.

A few hours later as the sun goes down, about 50 residents crowd into the tent, sitting on folding chairs and wobbly benches while loud floor fans swirl hot, sticky air. Residents slowly fan themselves and fight oppressive mosquitoes while Ross hands out agendas and introduces the first guest.

Margo Fleet is a Louisiana attorney managing a class-action lawsuit against the levee boards and the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of residents of heavily flooded areas. "I'm here to make sure you know your rights," she tells the small crowd over a garbled PA system.

Fleet sums up the lawsuit and emphasizes there are no guarantees. But she encourages residents to fill out the forms she's brought. When she comes to the form's section on personal injury, Fleet explains this includes any mental anguish caused by the flooding. "I'm not going to tell you how much to put down in this category," she says, "but I will say this: Don't underestimate."

When Fleet has finished speaking, a dozen residents swarm a folding table in the far corner, gathering the legal forms and shuffling out of the tent.

Meanwhile, another member of the advisory council addresses laundromat abuse in the park. Most of the washing machines are broken most of the time, he says, and trouble-making teenagers are to blame. "FEMA's going to get tired of coming out to fix these things," he tells the group. "You've got to control your kids."

In the second row, a 52-year-old man from the Ninth Ward stands to plead with residents to mind their teenagers. He says he's tired of theft and violence in the park, but his angst grows broader: "I'm tired of being broke and I'm tired of nobody caring," he shouts. "When did anybody ever give us anything?"

For the next hour, a train of locals seemed to answer that question: A representative from the Louisiana Department of Labor told job-seekers to gather at the tent on Tuesday for a job fair. An administrator from the East Baton Rouge School District offered school supplies and help with getting truant kids enrolled in school.

An attorney from the Louisiana Bar Foundation offered to match residents with law students who would help them navigate legal issues for free. A representative from a medical supply company offered to bring in wheelchairs, hearing aids, and other needed equipment. A local doctor announced she would arrange a pediatric mobile clinic to visit the park once a week.

At the meeting's end Ross encouraged the group to use these services, but said they can get more from the government: "Our goal is to be a part of every class-action lawsuit that involves Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. . . . Everything they took from us we can get back."

Displaced residents of public housing in New Orleans are signing onto a recently filed lawsuit that aims to extract damages from federal and local housing authorities, and to stop plans to revamp the faltering public housing system.

Before Katrina, some 5,100 households lived in public housing in New Orleans, and another 9,000 families used Section 8 housing vouchers to live in reduced-rent units in other parts of town. The storm destroyed or severely damaged large swaths of public housing, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently announced plans to demolish 5,000 uninhabitable units in four housing projects.

New Orleans public housing was already beleaguered before Katrina struck. Crime, drugs, gangs, and generational poverty plagued residents living in hundreds of dilapidated units. The situation had grown so dire HUD seized day-to-day management of public housing from the local Housing Authority of New Orleans in 2002. That's a step the federal agency rarely takes, according to HUD spokeswoman Donna White: HUD directly manages only eight housing authorities out of some 3,400 nationwide.

When Katrina wiped out thousands of public housing units, HUD was determined not simply to rebuild the same problems. Instead, the agency has announced plans to redevelop public housing using a mixed-income model that will "break up concentrations of poverty" and stop "simply warehousing people," White told WORLD. Though public housing will be different, "anyone who was displaced from Katrina will have an opportunity to return," she says.

Pamela Mahogany doesn't like that plan. Mahogany lived in the sprawling St. Bernard public housing complex in the Seventh Ward before Katrina severely damaged nearly every unit. HUD says it will raze the St. Bernard complex. The agency has given Mahogany a federal housing voucher that pays for another rental unit she found in New Orleans, but Mahogany demands her old neighborhood back: "We have a right to live in public housing."

Endesha Juakali, a local public housing activist who grew up in the St. Bernard complex, pledged to make life miserable in New Orleans until the residents' demands are met. "If we're unhappy, we're going to make the whole city unhappy," Juakali said at a press conference announcing a class-action lawsuit. "We're going to run the tourists away."

The Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project filed a civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of the residents, accusing HUD and Secretary Alphonso Jackson of "willful, callous, wanton, and reckless disregard" for public housing residents. The suit alleges that HUD's delay in restoring public housing units is based on "a racial animus and clear intention to prohibit the return of many low-income African-American families."

White says that the secretary, who is black, is "offended" by allegations of racism. She added that Katrina's unprecedented destruction made delays inevitable: The storm forced the local HUD staff to abandon its New Orleans office and set up a satellite office in Houston. Some staff members scattered to different cities, and the office operated with less than half of its normal staff for six months.

The diminished staff was responsible for inspecting every public housing unit in New Orleans before residents could return. That meant thousands of inspections. "It just takes time," said White.

In the meantime, HUD offered disaster-housing vouchers to all public housing residents in areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina or Rita. Some 28,000 families from across the Gulf Coast and Texas have used the vouchers to rent units from housing authorities in cities across the United States.

Nicole Gelanus, an urban affairs expert and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says overhauling public housing in New Orleans is the right thing to do: "No respectable government entity would put people back into that same situation."

Gelanus thinks the mixed-income model is a step in the right direction but says HUD should go farther in its reform. Unlike welfare recipients, public housing residents face no time limits for living in subsidized units. That means some families live in the projects for decades. "That was never the point of public housing," says Gelanus.

Public housing was originally designed to give struggling families a safe, affordable place to live until they could get back on their feet. But decades later, open-ended public housing has "entrenched an underclass population that is dependent on the government for housing permanently," she says. "It's really the last permanent benefit."

HUD hasn't mentioned any plans to reform eligibility requirements, but White did dispel a rumor that families living in public housing in New Orleans would be required to work. Not true, she says: "We want to give everyone a chance to return."

Back in Renaissance Village, some residents are determined to work their way out of their troubles. Tyrone Blanks, who owns a home in the hard-hit New Orleans East, says he makes weekly trips to repair his house. He's back at work and doubts he'll sign up for any lawsuits. "The more adversity I meet, the more it makes me want to work harder and do better," says Blanks. "But I guess I'm old school."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.