In the months following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast in 2005, ATD Fourth World Volunteer Corps members based in New Orleans traveled the southern United States to reconnect with displaced members and re-establish a network of support. Dispersed as they were across six states in shelters and emergency housing, the members of ATD Fourth World were already rebuilding the community that had been so vital to them in their hometown. And they wanted to share this experience, this knowledge in a book. The result was a six-year collaborative writing process, involving some 50 co-authors, including families with lived experiences of poverty, other ATD Fourth World members in Louisiana, academics, and social scientists.
Here are a few excerpts of “Not Meant to Live like This” (the free e-book can be downloaded here).
Marcia Lewis, a mother of three, agrees: “The National Guard was like we was all criminals. They had to search you. The Superdome was hell! You couldn’t use the bathroom, they didn’t have no sewer system. My mom wasn’t with us. She was on the other side of the Dome. I would say for that whole week [I didn’t know where my mom was].” Michelle Collins was 15 at the time and says: While we were walking to the Superdome, there was water almost all the way up to our stomachs. We saw a lot of people just dying. [At the Superdome,] it was terrible. It was like a hospital mixed with hungry people, people you don’t want to be around. People getting raped and hurt. We were sleeping on the floor and it was wet. (…) I didn’t know where my mom was. Not until eight months or a year later, I was able to communicate with her and others. I did see my mom two years [after Katrina]. […]
Sister Jane McKinlay: “I hope that it’s going to be not only for New Orleans and the United States, but for the whole world. Quietly, for many years, a different message is being given to the world through the Fourth World Movement, the different message being that the traditional way we are dealing with poverty—all this giving and social programs to help people that are poor—that they haven’t worked. That the gulf between those who have and those who have not has only widened. And that there will be an end to extreme, chronic poverty only when those who are living in extreme, chronic poverty are partnered by persons who are not in that situation, and all of them working together effect an end of extreme poverty. I see the Fourth World Movement vision as being different from what traditionally has been done. [Stopping] the continuation of people living in extreme poverty is a responsibility for every individual in the entire population, and we are all morally responsible to get involved and become partners with the very poor.”
[Over the past years], some of these families have chosen to stay where they are, some have tried and failed to return to New Orleans, and some have managed to come back—only to find a city that has changed in ways they did not expect. When Miss Della Johnson finally came back from Missouri, New Orleans wasn’t the way it had been. “The light bill was so high, the water [bill] was so high. You can’t use the water down here, because you don’t know if it’s right. When I run out of milk, I have to give the children something and I give them sugar water. It used to happen every other month. The cost of living is so high. They don’t have jobs like they used to have. If you don’t have income, you don’t eat. That’s why crime is so high around here. I saw a lady in the store. She said, ‘I can’t buy this water.’ She had to take it. I don’t think that’s right, that milk is very expensive. I am still down and out because of Katrina. Katrina took a lot out of people.”
Dee Mauss: “I have learned from families that they could no longer pay their rent because it had doubled. Landlords had families move out, repaired the units, doubled the rent, and accepted new tenants. FEMA agreed to pay unbelievable prices for rent. As a result, landlords raised rents to FEMA acceptable rates. The deposit alone could cost as much as $1,000, making it impossible for families to acquire an apartment. On the other end of the spectrum, there were people who paid dirt-cheap rent but lived in very substandard conditions. They were putting sheets and cardboard on the walls where they were living to block out the wind. They did not complain because they had nowhere else to go. I have met people who lived for months in a car, and couldn’t double up in the homes of family members who were renting because of landlord restrictions. I know of families where homeless children were smuggled into relatives’ apartments for a few hours of sleep during the night. I know of families who lived for months on the living room floors in crowded situations.
These types of situations create a strain on relationships, and stress levels increase for many individuals. Everyone involved wanted their own space. However, it takes months of trying to find a job, then more months to save the money for a deposit on an apartment—especially a post-Katrina apartment—let alone utility deposits. After finding an apartment, it takes times to find furniture. Some families did receive pieces of furniture through volunteer services, but most of the furniture they acquired came at their own expense.
Constantly, it was said that there were lots of jobs, but a good number of jobs required twelve-hour shifts from families with young children who needed child care, without available family members in town to baby-sit. Some potential employers promised $10 or more an hour. However, when people were hired, they discovered that they could earn $10 if they worked full-time, but they were always told they were not needed full-time, so they never earned $10 an hour. I have heard that even now people have been found living in their gutted homes because they didn’t have insurance. I have heard from counselors that the stress level, the level of depression, the suicide rate is increasing and that there are not enough mental health facilities to meet the needs of people.
We don’t have Charity Hospital anymore, but we do have a clinic here and there. A huge project is supposed to take place, building a health facility to replace Charity Hospital. At the same time, there are rallies to demand the reopening of Charity so that people who do not have health insurance can get the health care they need. There is a lot of rebuilding that still needs to take place in many areas, including housing and health care. This city has always been a city built on the backs of the poor. It’s a tourist industry. Even before Katrina, people worked within the tourist industry, held several jobs to provide for their families in order to survive. Now with rent doubled—and income I am sure has not doubled—it must be difficult to survive. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how they find the strength.”