“It Ain’t My Fault”
Crawling through a hole in a fence and walking through an open doorway, Shamus Rohn and Mike Miller lead the way into an abandoned Midcity hospital. They are outreach workers for the New Orleans organization UNITY for the Homeless, and they do this all day long; searching empty houses and buildings for people, so they can offer services and support. “We joke about having turned criminal trespass into a fulltime job,” says Rohn.
Up a darkened stairway and through the detritus of a thoroughly scavenged building, Rohn and Miller enter a sundrenched room. Inside is Michael Palmer, a 57-year-old white former construction worker and merchant seaman who has made a home here. Palmer – his friends call him Mickey – is in some ways lucky. He found a room with a door that locks. He salvaged some furniture from other parts of the hospital, so he has a bed, a couch, and a rug. Best of all, he has a fourth-floor room with a balcony. “Of all the homeless,” he says, “I probably have the best view.”
Mickey has lived here for six months. He’s been homeless since shortly after Katrina, and this is by far the best place he’s stayed in that time. “I’ve lived on the street,” he says. “I’ve slept in a cardboard box.” He is a proud man, thin and muscled with a fresh shave, clean clothes and a trim mustache. He credits a nearby church, which lets him shave and shower.
But Palmer would like to be able to pay rent again. “My apartment was around $450. I could afford $450. I can’t afford $700 or $800 and that’s what the places have gone up to.” Keeping himself together, well-dressed and fresh, Mickey is trying to go back to the life he had. “I have never lived on the dole of the state,” he says proudly. “I’ve never been on welfare, never collected food stamps.” Palmer rented an apartment before Katrina. He did repairs and construction. “I had my own business,” he says. “I had a pickup truck with all my tools, and all that went under water.”
Palmer is one of thousands of homeless people living in New Orleans’ storm damaged and abandoned homes and buildings. Four years after Katrina, recovery and rebuilding has come slow to this city, and there are many boarded-up homes to choose from. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center counts 65,888 abandoned residential addresses in New Orleans, and this number doesn’t include any of the many non-residential buildings, like the hospital Mickey stays in. Overall, about a third of the addresses in the city are vacant or abandoned, the highest rate in the nation. UNITY for the Homeless is the only organization surveying these spaces, and Miller and Rohn are the only fulltime staff on the project. They have surveyed 1,330 buildings – a small fraction of the total number of empty structures. Of those, 564 were unsecured. Nearly 40% of them showed signs of use, including a total of 270 bedrolls or mattresses.
Using conservative estimates, UNITY estimates at least 6,000 squatters, and a total of about 11,000 homeless individuals in the city.
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By the start of Mrs. K-Doe’s funeral service Saturday morning, the neighborhood church on Ursulines Avenue had exceeded its standing-room-only capacity. A police officer turned away late arrivals, who pooled on the sidewalk to await the subsequent second-line.
Mrs. K-Doe, the widow of New Orleans rhythm & blues singer Ernie K-Doe and his equal in the annals of eccentricity, died of a heart attack early Mardi Gras morning.
She spent the decade preceding her husband’s death in 2001 rescuing him from alcoholism and returning him to the stage. After his death, she transformed the Mother-in-Law Lounge, the North Claiborne Avenue nightclub named for his biggest hit, into a community center and shrine to him.
Indefatigable, unflappable and generous with her meager resources, she looked after a wide cross-section of the city’s have’s and have not’s. She served her red beans to everyone from veteran R&B singers to tattooed Bywater hipsters. She welcomed all save the occasional New York Times reporter who got under her skin.
On Friday, dozens of friends and admirers mingled in the tiki garden she installed next to the Lounge. Amid claw-foot tubs and toilets painted purple, green and gold, they traded stories, ate finger sandwiches and queued up patiently to view her body as it lay in state inside.
Hundreds of people would file past her white, glass-topped casket of 16-gauge steel. She was resplendent in an ankle-length white gown trimmed with silver sequins. Befitting the widow of the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Universe, Mrs. K-Doe also wore a tiara and grasped a scepter in her left hand.