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Homeless on the rise in New Orleans

Squat in buildings condemned after Hurricane Katrina

NEW ORLEANS -- As she pushed a shopping cart of belongings through the still-life of the Lower 9th Ward, Tamara Martin knew only one source of shelter for this city's burgeoning homeless population: the thousands of buildings left vacant and rotting nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina struck.

The angular 33-year-old, who says she takes the antianxiety drug Lexapro to drive away what she calls "that evil solution" of crack cocaine, slept for two months in the shell of her childhood home, rejected by family and emergency shelter officials who said they had no room for an addict.

Routed from the gutted house by National Guard patrols who warned that a weak roof could entomb her, Martin accepted a move-in invitation from a man in another abandoned building. It's another poor substitute for the apartment she used to have at a housing project, one of four the government wants to demolish in a city where the market rent has increased 81 percent.

Because she's homeless, she said: "I can't get right, you know . . . I'm striving hard. I'm losing so much weight I'm striving so much."

Across New Orleans -- from abandoned sections of the Lower 9th Ward to apartments near City Hall and even wind-shredded suburban houses -- a homeless population that has nearly doubled since Hurricane Katrina is squatting in the ruins of the storm. Through pried-open doors of some of the city's estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings, the poor, mentally ill, and drug-addicted have carved out living conditions like those of the Third World.

"These are abandoned people living in abandoned housing in a city which in many ways has itself been abandoned," said Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a group that helps the homeless.

In January 2005, UNITY volunteers toured shelters, parks, and flophouses and counted 6,300 homeless people in the city and its immediate suburbs. A UNITY count this past January estimated 12,000 homeless, though only 60 percent of the city's general population had returned.

Shelters say they are turning away hundreds each night, their beds reduced citywide from 832 to 232.

"There's no shelters left in this city. And I'd rather live in an abandoned home than under the overpass. That's where people end up dying," said Nick St. Laurent, 26, who came from Detroit seeking construction work but ended up in a gutted apartment about a quarter-mile from City Hall. Nearby is a homeless camp under the elevated Interstate 10, in a neighborhood where a slaying and nine assaults have occurred this year.

No one knows exactly how many people have taken refuge in abandoned buildings, but unprecedented increases in trespassing arrests and vacant-building fires suggest there could be thousands.

Some are longtime locals such as Martin. Others, like St. Laurent, came to the city for rebuilding jobs but ran into a wall of gentrifying rents and damage to affordable apartments and shelters.

Of the 200,000 homes lost to Katrina, 41,000 were rental units affordable to people earning less than the area's median income, according to a July study by the California nonprofit PolicyLink. Since the storm, fair market rent for an efficiency apartment has risen from $461 to $836, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

"Yet again, New Orleans is showing how important it is that poverty be addressed in this country," said Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, who has promised the state would lobby for more federal money for housing and homeless services. The bulk of funding for such programs has been allocated and the need is not nearly met, he said.

For example, a $26 million state plan to provide drug counseling coupled with long-term affordable housing is designed to restore pre-Katrina levels of assistance, not deal with the poststorm increase in homelessness, state officials said. The housing portion of the plan is tethered to federal tax incentives for developers who have thus far built little for the city's poorest, according to the PolicyLink report.

Tax credits currently fund the reconstruction of only 8 percent of the apartments that were affordable to people earning 30 percent of the median income, the report found. The four housing projects slated for demolition, including Martin's, accounted for 3,000 low-income units. Affordable replacements are funded for only 1 in 4 of those, the report found.

The only effort to tackle post-Katrina homelessness comes from the proposed Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007, which could mandate the restoration of all affordable housing and bring a tenfold increase in funds for other homeless assistance.

But a spokesman for Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama and the ranking member of the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, said the legislation will stay there until Louisiana's slow-moving Road Home recovery program reports on how many people it can help first.

Police, fire, and health officials have become too familiar with squatting and homelessness.

The New Orleans Fire Department recorded 691 structure fires in 2006, the most recent statistics available. Squatters are suspected to have accidentally started one-fifth of them, according to fire Captain Terry Hardy.

"It has stretched our manpower," said Hardy. The department is down by 100 firefighters since Katrina, and fire call-response times are crawling, he said.

According to New Orleans police records, there have been more than 1,400 trespassing arrests so far this year, ranking it the city's fourth most common crime. Police say processing a homeless person, particularly for mental health care in a city where hospital beds are scarce, can take an officer off the street for four hours.

"It's draining resources," said Sergeant Joe Narcisse, police spokesman.

Homeless people sometimes call authorities on themselves, hoping to find a safe place for the night, said Dr. Joe Guarisco, chief of emergency services for the area's Ochsner Health System.

Alan Wheeler, 43, of Pittsburgh, has been sharing ratinfested apartments with three other squatters.

Wheeler said he would live in a shelter and seek drug counseling if they were available. Life in Katrina's ruins has seen him spiral from a construction entrepreneur making a quarter-million dollars, he said, to a crack addict.

"Alan's homeless?" asked David Cooper, his former business partner in Ostrander, Ohio, who confirmed Wheeler's past and expressed shock at his present condition.