Aid for Katrina's disabled homeless population could be cut

Congress may be preparing to ax a $76-million Katrina aid package that would provide housing assistance to physically and mentally disabled homeless Katrina victims. Sen. Mary Landrieu recently added the aid provision to the $212 billion supplemental appropriations Iraq war finance bill.

Landrieu's provision is now in danger of being cut by House Democrats. As reported in the Times-Picayune, House Democratic leaders are trying to accede to President Bush's demands to keep the emergency war supplemental bill close to $184 billion. With the House making plans to trim $108 billion from the bill, the domestic Katrina housing assistance is in jeopardy.

But Landrieu isn't ready to give up. With prospects for passing regular appropriations bills uncertain in an election year, Landrieu told the Times-Picayune that attaching Katrina funding to emergency spending bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be the only option available for additional spending on GulfCoast recovery.

"This bill is the most immediate way to meet our domestic emergency needs on the GulfCoast," Landrieu told the Times-Picayune. The housing assistance funds would cover 3,000 rent-aid vouchers for homeless and elderly people who because of mental or physical disabilities have not been able to recover from the 2005 hurricanes, according to Landrieu.

The call for GulfCoast housing vouchers is not a new one. Gulf Coast housing advocates have lobbied for vouchers for the past two and a half years, and in fact, a voucher provision was cut from the 2006 war supplemental under similar political pressures. In a letter to The Advocate, Valerie Keller, co-chair of the Louisiana Supportive Housing Coalition, calls on Congressional leadership not to abandon, yet again, Louisiana's most vulnerable victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. "Thousands of disabled men and women lie in oppressive heat, suffering without medical care or safe housing," she wrote. "Recent studies reveal many of these disabled homeless people are at imminent risk of dying."

Facing South has extensively reported on the affordable housing crisis in New Orleans. More than two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, the city's lack of affordable housing remains one of the most pressing problems facing the recovery effort. Moreover, the housing crisis continues to contribute to New Orleans' growing homeless population, one that has doubled to an estimated 12,000 since the 2005 disaster.

These homeless populations are becoming more visible throughout New Orleans, with some populations camping out in tent cities under a freeway overpass near Canal Street not far from the French Quarter and many more filling several blocks of Claiborne Avenue. As we reported last month, a recent survey by Unity of Greater New Orleans found that 86 percent of people living in these city encampments are from the New Orleans area, a majority of which are homeless due to Hurricane Katrina. The survey also found that in these homeless camps 80 percent have at least one physical disability, 58 percent have had some kind of addiction, 40 percent are mentally ill, and 19 percent are "tri-morbid"-they have a disability, an addiction and mental illness.

In light of this crisis, the need for housing vouchers for this population grows more and more crucial. As the New York Times reported:

"For these difficult cases, permanent housing with supportive services, like counseling, has become a preferred method. But it takes time, patience, money and one thing New Orleans is short of: apartments. Many apartment developers who applied for tax credits after Hurricane Katrina were required to set aside 5 percent of their units for supportive housing, but because of high construction costs and other factors, far fewer units than expected are in the pipeline. And without the vouchers, even those units will not be affordable."