- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Across New Orleans — from abandoned sections of the Lower Ninth Ward to apartments near City Hall — 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 in January 2007 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 police report a homicide and nine assaults this year.

Tamara Martin, 33, who takes the anti-anxiety 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 shelters 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, Miss 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 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 striving hard. I’m losing so much weight I’m striving so much.”

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 residents like Miss Martin. Others, like Mr. St. Laurent, came to the city for rebuilding jobs but ran into a buzz saw of gentrifying rents and damage to affordable apartments and shelters — an ironic development for a city known as the Big Easy.

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.

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