Fire puts somber face on city's housing crunch Options are scarce for homeless in N.O. Times-Picayune, Monday, June 18, 2007 By Valerie Faciane, Staff writer It's tough enough finding an affordable apartment in New Orleans. But when you're feeding six children on $1,300 a month, it can seem close to impossible. That was the dilemma confronted by security guard Lashonda Mitchell after a fire in late May destroyed the place she was renting in downtown New Orleans. The Red Cross provided food and clothes and hotel vouchers good for nine nights. But then what -- the streets? Mitchell, a 36-year-old single mother whose children range in age from 9 to 19, hit the phones, calling nonprofit agencies in a search for emergency housing. She knew that if she went to a shelter the kids would have been split up because of their age differences, and that was something she was loath to see happen. Other agencies offered to put her on waiting lists for rent assistance, but she knew better than to hold her breath. "If I could get on Section 8 or an apartment in the project or something, I would take it," said Mitchell, who presented the Housing Authority of New Orleans with a letter from the Red Cross certifying that she was homeless. "I was on the waiting list for Section 8 before Katrina. They haven't gotten to my number yet," Mitchell said. "I've been on the list for about five or six years." The word from HANO: They've stopped taking applicants for Section 8 vouchers, and to get priority for moving into the few available units of public housing that have reopened since Katrina, it helps to be a former HANO tenant. The only location that is considering new applicants is the Fischer housing development in Algiers, a HANO official said. To the rescue, at least temporarily: a sister of Mitchell's with a place in the Lower 9th Ward. But it's a squeeze. Mitchell's sister has five children of her own and only three bedrooms. That makes three bedrooms for 13 people. And so the search continues. Big families squeezed out Advocates for the homeless say Mitchell's plight is one they see all too often when families, particularly large families such as Mitchell's, try to find emergency housing in post-Katrina New Orleans. At this point, housing resources are few and far between. Only two-thirds of the pre-Katrina beds earmarked for the homeless are currently up and running, "yet we have twice the number of homeless we had pre-Katrina," said Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a network of about 60 nonprofit and government agencies serving the homeless. "Consequently, families and individuals are being forced to live in abandoned buildings because of the lack of affordable housing available." Mitchell said her search might have been less stressful had she known from the start about UNITY. She had already given up and moved in with her sister when she made contact, and the agency has rekindled the hope that she'll soon find a place of her own through its Welcome Home program. UNITY is seeking three different financial sources to help alleviate the crisis. One is from the state Department of Social Services, which has committed to provide about $4.3 million through the Road Home program for short-term rent assistance to very lowincome people. "This is both to rapidly rehouse families and individuals who are already homeless and prevent the homelessness of families who are precariously housed," said Kegel, who expects those funds by summer. UNITY also is working with the city to obtain a one-time special appropriation for rent assistance from Congress, specifically to address the housing crisis for very low-income people. The third source is a request, also pending in Congress, to provide 3,000 permanent subsidized housing units with support services for people with disabilities who are homeless or at risk of homelessness or unnecessary institutionalization. Two-thirds of those units would be in New Orleans, Kegel said. Triage housing Until those resources come through, UNITY is resorting to triage to identify and assist the most vulnerable people, including the elderly, the disabled and large families, like Mitchell's. "We don't ever want to see very vulnerable people living in abandoned buildings," Kegel said. "Yet, despite everyone's efforts, it's inescapable that there are very vulnerable people living in literal homelessness in post-Katrina New Orleans." UNITY sponsors outreach teams that go into communities and focus on people who are living on the streets and in abandoned buildings. They try to identify the most vulnerable homeless, such as families and the elderly, and put them up in hotels until a housing slot becomes available. It may take the form of an emergency shelter, transitional housing, short-term rent assistance or permanent supportive housing. The economics of a household such as Mitchell's make it clear why unsubsidized rental properties have drifted out of reach. The fair market rent of a three-bedroom apartment for a family the size of Mitchell's is $1,256. Mitchell's 19-year-old son also works as a security guard and she hopes to land a second job as a sitter for the elderly. But even with the 19-year-old in the work force, mother and son bring in only $1,300 a month. The only way they had been able to cover the rent on the downtown dwelling that burned was with $900 in emergency assistance provided by FEMA after their pre-storm home, on Pauger Street in the 7th Ward, was destroyed by Katrina. "That's when it gets really hard, when it's a large family," said Don Everard, director at Hope House, a neighborhood center in the Lower Garden District, which has a transitional housing program for families as well as a rental assistance program. "Nothing's really affordable. When you need a three- to four-bedroom house, rents are staggering." Transitional programs full The city's few transitional housing programs for families are basically full. For the most part, these programs allow families to live rent-free or at subsidized rates while they work and save enough money to become self-sufficient. A security deposit and rent are only part of the expenses families face when they are house hunting, Everard said. All too often houses don't come equipped with appliances, and some families don't have furniture. Everard said many low-income families have found housing at below-market prices through the UNITY Housing Link at www.unityhousinglink.org that lists apartments offered at less than 80 percent of the fair market rent. The Web site, which has gotten more than 7,000 hits since it came on line in February, is co-sponsored by the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans, the city's major landlord organization. "We work really hard to find landlords who are willing to rent for less than the fair market rent, and we find that many landlords are willing to do this to make a contribution to the area's recovery," Kegel said. "If low-wage workers can't find housing, then New Orleans will never recover." The nine Uptown apartments that Hope House has in its transitional housing program are currently full and there is a waiting list. Clients are allowed to stay for up to nine months. Hope House also has a waiting list for its rental assistance program, Everard said. Catholic Charities' Baronne Street Transitional Housing Program, which also is full, accepts singles, couples and families, but "we're focusing basically on families because there are so few places for families," program director Michell Brown said. Baronne Street also has a rental assistance program, but all funds have been exhausted until more grants become available, Brown said. The Jefferson Care Center on the West Bank is full as well. The emergency shelter, also run by Catholic Charities, has 13 rooms that can accommodate up to 36 people. It allows families to stay up to three months and singles and couples up to 45 days, while they are case-managed to become self-sufficient, program director Pat Jones said. Catholic Charities operates two other transitional housing programs: the Beyond Shelter and Bridges to Self-Sufficiency. Both are in Bridge City and both accept families as well as single people. As for Mitchell, last week she had zeroed in on a house. She said a UNITY member agency has agreed to cover the security deposit and her first three months of rent. After that, with resumption of her FEMA assistance, she feels confident that she will be able to hold her ground. "It's wonderful; it feels so good to know that we'll be in our own place once again," she said. ....... Valerie Faciane can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3325.