Reaching Out, Four Years After Hurricane Katrina

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused devastation across the U.S. Gulf Coast. Thousands were left homeless. Four years later, nearly 12,000 people are still homeless in New Orleans. Many live in damaged, abandoned buildings without electricity, water, or sanitation. Shamus Rohn and Mike Miller share the challenges of homeless outreach work in post-Katrina New Orleans as part of the No One Suffers Alone Abandoned Building Outreach Project, of UNITY of Greater New Orleans.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Louisiana, devastating the Gulf Coast and leaving thousands homeless. Four years later, nearly 12,000 people are homeless in New Orleans, and 65,000 buildings stand abandoned.

What does homeless outreach work mean in post-Katrina New Orleans? It means working long hours late into the night, climbing over fences and under floorboards, and building relationships with the approximately 6,000 people who are living in damaged, abandoned buildings and gutted homes.

“It makes it a lot harder to find people,” says Shamus Rohn, Director of No One Suffers Alone Abandoned Building Outreach Project, of Unity of Greater New Orleans. Unity is a collaborative of sixty agencies working to end homelessness.

“People living in abandoned buildings feel they are constantly at risk of arrest, and shelters in the area tend to be full,” explains Shamus. Most of New Orleans’ abandoned buildings are not safe for human habitation. People are reluctant to seek services, but are often in desperate need. To make contact, Shamus Rohn and Mike Miller, Director of Supportive Housing Placement for Unity, work long hours. During the day, they look for signs of people living in buildings. At night they return to begin the intake process. “We rarely find anyone earlier than 10 pm,” explains Mike Miller. “Usually we don’t find anyone until after midnight.”

“We say hello and explain who we are,” says Shamus. “We are honest with people and tell them it’s going to take a while to get them services.” The group is using the Vulnerability Index developed by Dr. Jim O’Connell of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. It helps determine who, if remaining unhoused, is at highest risk of death.

Shamus and Mike also try to determine who will qualify for HUD’s Shelter Plus Care voucher program. Shelter Plus Care provides housing for people who are homeless with severe disabilities or severe mental illness. A new Shelter Plus Care initiative in New Orleans offers increased opportunities for those who qualify. But there is great need across the board. “There is a backlog of need for everything,” says Shamus. This includes people who are newly homeless as a result of the economic downturn and others who do not qualify for Shelter Plus Care.

There are also many people who are essentially homeless in their own homes because of sub-standard living conditions. “It is a weird new nuance of homeless outreach now,” says Shamus. This includes people who are living on a fixed income. Their homes were destroyed and some had enough money to begin the renovation process but not to finish it.

“Maybe they gutted their homes, but ran out of money. They are living in a shell of a house with no running water, no electricity, or no sewage,” says Shamus. People own their houses and don’t want to leave. They just want their homes repaired. “We don’t have the funding to help, so we look for church recovery groups,” says Shamus.

In June of 2008, Congress allocated 3,000 Permanent Supportive Housing vouchers for Louisiana, 1,000 of which are Shelter Plus Care housing vouchers, with 752 for New Orleans. The money is just now becoming available. “The money kept getting backed up at the state level. We have people we met in January and we keep going back to say ‘please hang on.’ We are not dragging our feet. We just didn’t have the resources.” Now that Shelter Plus Care vouchers are available, Shamus and Mike have a better chance of helping qualified clients get housed.

The Unity outreach teams meet with 5 to 10 people each night. “Some people take more time than others. People are very fearful. Sometimes we have to talk to people through the walls of their houses. There is a lot of paperwork to complete to document physical and emotional issues.

The team worked with one couple that was living on the third floor of a seven-story office building. The ceilings were caving in. Mike and Shamus met with them more than twenty times in a six-month period. The couple was living on the edge: one would keep watch while the other one slept. They were almost always intoxicated.

“We are finding that the stress of squatting, the health issues of living in unsanitary conditions, and the mental stressors of constantly fearing arrest really deteriorates mental health. Once people are housed, that stress disappears.” Recently, Mike went to visit the same couple in their new apartment, obtained through Shelter Plus Care. They were both sober, relaxed, and cooking dinner.

Shamus and Mike talk about what keeps them going. In addition to a lot of coffee, Shamus enjoys the people he meets. “It is the most varied cross section of humanity. I never know who I am going to meet. For those who lived here before the storm, there is a lot of anger about the recovery. It’s difficult knowing it is a systemic failure, watching people dealing with so much. You’ve got to get up and do something about it,” says Shamus.

Mike explains that it is personal. “In our outreach team, eighty percent of us know what it means to be homeless. With that level of empathy, it gets personal. Being an outreach worker wears you out physically. But at the end of the day everybody is glad to see you and you can’t beat that.

Visit the webpage: UNITY of Greater New Orleans.

Publication Date: 
Newton Centre, MA, USA