NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Daylight seeps through holes in the ceiling as 22-year-old Royon Rene Burbank walks across the sagging floor, the dirt below visible through gaps where rotten boards have given way. A single mother working two jobs yet still unable to afford rent in New Orleans, Burbank lives with her toddler son in a house that was gutted to the studs and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina.
“I called child protection services on myself,” she said. “I didn’t want myself to get in trouble or lose my kid. I didn’t want to put him in harm’s way. I had to call them and tell them, hey, I have a situation. I’m living in this abandoned house.”
Agencies that work with the city’s homeless are seeing the situation all too often. Case workers say a lack of affordable housing is forcing the most vulnerable — the poor, disabled, elderly and low-income wage earners like Burbank — to live in unthinkable conditions.
After years of declining homeless population , agencies are “at a virtual standstill” as they struggle to keep up with the number of people newly homeless in the city, according to officials at Unity of Greater New Orleans.
“We’re used to making progress, so it’s very distressing to us to see the tide turning in the wrong direction … seeing families sleeping in their cars, sleeping outside in parks,” Unity Executive Director Martha Kegel said.
An annual report Unity released Friday shows the number of chronically homeless — those with disabilities who have been on the street or in a shelter for more than a year — is down significantly, but the number of other homeless adults has increased by 20% in the past two years. And Kegel said the number of families with children seeking shelter in New Orleans is up this year.
“We have to do better,” she said. “When children experience homelessness, it really stunts their intellectual growth as well as their emotional growth. It is a severe trauma.”
Unity and the dozens of organizations that make up the coalition it heads — which includes the City of New Orleans, nearby Jefferson Parish, Volunteers of America, and shelters and human service agencies — work not only to prevent children from becoming homeless but to end it quickly when it does happen, to make the experience short-lived so they are less likely to remember it, Kegel said.
Burbank said she worries her son, who is 3, will remember living in the abandoned house. He became sick during that time, which off-and-on spanned about eight months, and developed the contagious rash impetigo, known as “Indian fire,” she said.
“He was so uncomfortable, itching and then just sleeping all the time,” she said.
Seeing mice running along the house’s exposed pipes and then one night an opossum “was the last straw,” she said. “I couldn’t take it.”
Burbank said her son has been spending nights at her grandfather’s house while she stays in a shelter until Unity can place them in a home she’s able to afford.
Intense gentrification in New Orleans since Katrina has caused rent and housing prices to climb, more than doubling in many neighborhoods, even those that for decades before Katrina were considered affordable by low-income wage earners like Burbank.
According to a 2015 report by HousingNOLA, which tracks housing trends in New Orleans, rent prices rose by 102% and housing values by 109% between 2000 and 2013, far outpacing the city’s annual median income that remained steady at about $37,000.
“Now, we’re at a real crossroads where we might actually face an increase (in homelessness) because of the affordable housing crisis,” she said.
The number of homeless in New Orleans had been dropping each year since a record high after Katrina in 2005. The city had more than 11,000 homeless in 2007, largely those displaced after the storm and subsequent flooding, which destroyed much affordable housing.
New Orleans has brought homelessness down by 90% since then, but the city still has one of the nation’s highest rates of homeless people per capita living outside, Kegel said.
Teams of case workers and skilled volunteers have been working to help get the homeless off the streets, but more resources such as rent assistance grants are needed to accomplish that, Kegel said.
Single dad Norman Carter and his 3-year-old son, Elijah, have been living on the street and in a friend’s storage space about the size of a large closet since this past summer.
Unity discovered the pair after Elijah came down with a stomach virus that required hospitalization.
Carter said Elijah’s mother is incarcerated, and the father-son duo became homeless when Carter broke his neck in a bicycle accident. He wears a metal frame halo with screws attached to his head to keep his neck in alignment until he is able to undergo surgery.
Unable to work, and his disability claim being appealed, Carter said he had nowhere to turn but the street.
“The past seven months, without housing, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “I mean, to walk and ask people for money so you can eat or buy medicine for your kid, Pampers. Not to have money for that, you don’t want to go into the store and steal. You don’t want to create a problem because you’re going to lose your child if that happens. It’s a struggle.”
Unity is working with Carter to get his disability claim in order, get Elijah in a Head Start program and settle the pair in a proper home.
“It’s going to get better,” Carter said. “We’ve come a long way. It’s going to get better.”