Lack of shelter imperils New Orleans' homeless

The deepening housing crisis in storm-battered New Orleans is putting the lives of the city's poorest and most vulnerable residents at risk -- and officials so far have failed to take adequate action.

The city normally activates its "freeze plan" for the homeless when the temperature or wind chill is forecast to drop to 38 degrees or lower, but that plan has been complicated by the destruction of shelters in Hurricane Katrina.

Two of New Orleans' biggest homeless refuges -- the Brantley Baptist Center and the Salvation Army -- are no longer available, and the New Orleans Mission is still rebuilding after losing its roof, the Baton Rouge Advocate reports. Before the storm, the city had about 1,100 beds to draw on for its freeze plan; advocates for the homeless estimate that number is now down to about 450.

The city Health Department's Health Care for the Homeless Program coordinates the freeze plan, but case manager Rusty Wirth with the Ozanam Inn shelter tells the paper that there has been no coordination by the city so far this fall:

"There is NO freeze plan now," he said. "The city is not interested in doing anything to help the homeless."

A spokesperson for Mayor Ray Nagin's office says the city is aware of the problem but has not identified any new shelters.

Executive Director Martha Kegel with UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the lead agency for the local network of homeless service organizations, says adults and children are now living in cars, ungutted houses and abandoned buildings throughout the city:

"I don't know that people are aware of the homeless crisis we are experiencing in New Orleans post-Katrina. It's grown tremendously, and it's getting worse every day."

At the same time, the federal government is moving ahead with plans to tear down four of the city's biggest low-income housing developments -- even though they did not suffer extensive storm-related damage. The demolitions are part of a rebuilding effort that New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff calls "one of the most aggressive works of social engineering in America since the postwar boom of the 1950s."

Meanwhile, several hundred Katrina survivors gathered in Baton Rouge this past Saturday to demand the immediate re-opening of the public housing complexes in New Orleans. Organized by the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, the "We Want Our Money" rally also demanded greater assistance for displaced renters, funds for the total replacement of storm-wrecked private homes, and the reorganization of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.