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Give and take

"Give and take" Continued...

Issue: "Stealth care," Sept. 16, 2006

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.

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