Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"The homeless, tempest-tossed"

Believe it or not, New Orleans has achieved another new record. Once again, it is one that we would prefer to pass on to some other American city, but it is a bleak reality of post-Katrina life here. It's our homeless population. Recent figures released from UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a homeless advocacy group, show New Orleans has a homeless population of 12,000. What that means is that one out of every 25 residents living in the city is homeless and it is double the pre-Katrina statistics. That translates to a 4% homeless rate, which far and away leads all other major metropolitan areas. By way of contrast, Atlanta has a 1.4% rate, while Washington, D.C.'s rate is slightly under 1%. No other city is even in the running for the unenviable title. According to city officials and advocacy workers, many of the homeless are victims of the hurricane who returned following the storm, but don't have jobs or fell through the cracks of the federal recovery programs that were put into place. Many are out-of-state workers who had come to New Orleans with the promise of work, but lost their jobs and are now stranded. Some are mental patients who are in severe need of care, but roam the streets due to a lack of treatment facilities. A gruesome reminder of this is the case of Bernell Johnson, a mentally ill patient now housed in the Orleans Parish House of Detention. Johnson stands accused of killing 24-year-old New Orleans police officer Nicola Cotton on January 28, following a seven-minute struggle for her weapon when the much-smaller two-year veteran tried to place him under arrest for a suspected rape violation. The tragedy of that event pales when one considers that Johnson is one of several thousand similar dislodged, mentally unfit members of New Orleans society who are in true survival mode. Throwing money at the problem doesn't seem to work, despite the many professionals on the city, state and federal levels. What we need is a better infrastructure and more programs in place to serve these underserved individuals. Many of the programs set in place to help the homeless have not been reopened since 2005. We have the figures to show the problem. We have the tragedy to illustrate the problem. What can we do to eliminate the problem?

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