Congress Passes New Orleans Homeless Relief

Congress passed a bill Thursday that includes a provision to help a growing number of people who have become homeless since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, many of whom are elderly and disabled.

The provision passed by the Senate late Thursday night gives $73 million for 3,000 subsidized housing vouchers to shelter physically and mentally disabled Katrina victims.

"We have a crisis of homelessness," said Vicki Judice of Unity of Greater New Orleans, a network of agencies that helps the homeless.

"People are coming back who were poor, who are still poor, and the rents have doubled," she said. "So they can afford to move in, but they can't keep up with the rent and they're getting evicted."

Judice said higher insurance costs are squeezing fewer landlords, who are passing the cost on to renters. An estimated 12,000 people are homeless, up from 6,000 before the storm, according to Unity.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., has been pushing the Senate for more than two years to provide additional relief to the Gulf Coast. She said the money will help a few thousand in New Orleans, but is angry much needed money for hospitals, police, and flood prevention was cut from the final bill.

"This bill provides a foundation for some of the remaining recovery needs on the Gulf Coast, but the task is not complete," Landrieu said. "The House of Representatives unfortunately caved to White House demands and cut critical funding the Senate had passed."

President Bush is expected to pass the legislation, which is attached to an almost $200 billion war supplemental bill that will fund the war through the first month of the next president's term.

Homeless Shelter Struggles to Stay Open

Late last year, Unity helped find apartments for roughly 300 people living in an encampment in New Orleans in Duncan Plaza, in view of City Hall.

Many of those people are now in subsidized apartments, but others have flocked to fill several blocks under a highway overpass near the French Quarter.

Others are living in shelters that are struggling to stay afloat financially after Katrina. Shelters financed by private donations won't benefit from the money appropriated by Congress this week.

The New Orleans Women's Shelter houses 20 women and six children, including Bowden's 3-week-old son. But with a weekly budget of $350 and one paid staff member, it has been forced to turn away many women who need help, including women fleeing abusive situations.

"It's amazing how many women come into our shelter who have been living in cars, in sheds, in gutted-out homes, with children who have gone days without eating," said Jackie Silverman, executive director of the New Orleans Women's Shelter.

Silverman, who opened the shelter in October 2007 after another women's shelter closed, said she may have to shut down the facility in February if the shelter doesn't get an infusion of donations from the public. The money she has received, mostly from a Jewish congregation in New Orleans, is dwindling.

"Because of Katrina, spouses and partners have gone to drinking, and lost jobs and rent has gone up, and so housing is out of control — so there's a desperation that people feel," she said.

Tijuana Bowden, 28, a single mother of two, has been living in the New Orleans Women's Shelter in the Upper Ninth Ward for seven months.

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