Hopes and Homes

The one year anniversary of Hurricane
Katrina, August 29th, 2006, should be a day to remember our commitments
to our fellow Americans and our collective losses. It should
be a day to reflect on what we as American citizens should expect
from our government in our most dire hour of need. It should
be a time to honor the courage of the hundreds of thousands of
still displaced Katrina survivors as they struggle to return
home one year after the storm broke land.

Mayor Ray Nagin, and the New Orleans City Council callously plan
to make August 29th not a time to remember but a the time to
begin bulldozing what little hope remains by excluding displaced
families from the city’s future. Through passing City Ordinance
#26031 unanimously in May, the Council decided that those who
have not been able to make the necessary repairs to their battered
homes by August 29th risk having their property seized and bulldozed
by the city.

Many working class families cannot return to New Orleans to prevent
their homes from being seized. Most are still waiting to receive
payment from insurance claims and can not pay the roughly $10,000
charged by contractors to gut their home nor can they afford
to take time off to gut their homes themselves. Low income families
in New Orleans could now lose their homes before receiving a
dime from the federal government’s $7.5 billion “Road Home”
home repair grant program for Louisiana’s homeowners, as those
vitally needed funds continue to sit in limbo.

The Council’s decision will further “cleanse” New Orleans
of its poor, continuing the exclusion and discrimination that
have become hallmarks of the reconstruction.

Getting information is very difficult for the over 200,000 former
residents of New Orleans, mostly working class African American
families, who are still spread across 44 different states. Most
have no way to know the current state of their homes and neighborhoods-things
like whether the water and electricity are running, or whether
their local schools are open. The overwhelming majority of relevant
government decisions like this ordinance do not make it into
the national news reports or local broadcasts in their new communities.

Oblivious to the strangulating lack of information in this crisis,
the City still believes it does not need to directly contact
homeowners as part of due process, required by the U.S. Constitution,
before it can begin seizing property. After being sued for previously
attempting to bulldoze homes in the Lower 9th Ward in December,
the City of New Orleans settled with local groups by pledging
to post seizure information on its City website and in New Orleans’
daily newspaper, The Times Picayune, to fulfill due process requirements.
Never mind that most affected displaced people live outside of
the Times Picayune’s distribution area and may not have an internet
connection. Displaced families, without actually being notified,
will remain completely in the dark as they lose their homes.

Despite these obstacles, New Orleans will begin seizing not just
houses-but also the hopes of returning home-from devastated communities
on the anniversary of our nation’s greatest tragedy.

The United States government would not just stand on the sidelines
as a local government began seizing the homes of vulnerable disaster
victims, especially without notification, in our disaster relief
efforts abroad. The U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for
International Development have significant programs supporting
the protection of the rights of “internally displaced people”
(IDPs) -meaning those displaced from their homes to a different
part of their country by a disaster-in areas like post-Tsunami
Sri Lanka. American diplomats lobby other nations to uphold internationally
accepted principles for IDPs that assure things like “property
and possessions left behind by IDPs should be protected against
destruction and arbitrary and illegal appropriation, occupation
or use.” USAID also runs programs assuring displaced people
have the right to information about what is going on in their
former communities. By some twisted logic, the U.S. government-and
the New Orleans Mayor and City Council-must think that Americans
should be excluded from such rights.

Election laws have allowed officials in New Orleans to hasten
the exclusion of the displaced and the disregard for their rights.
Despite making up more than half of the city’s former population,
the displaced had a dismally low electoral impact in the recent
New Orleans mayoral elections. This resulted from a large scale
denial of their civil rights after the state voted against legislation
allowing for the opening of satellite polling stations outside
of Louisiana and many of the displaced were no longer allowed
to vote in New Orleans when their new state and municipal voting
laws required registering in their new districts. The U.S., Justice
Department should have upheld the civil and human rights of the
displaced, rights that the U.S. Government is committed to upholding
in displaced communities abroad, and even had the power to do
so under the Voting Rights Act, but still the U.S. Government
choose to continue to deny the displaced the right to participate
in determining how their neighborhoods are rebuilt.

City Ordinance #26031 is proof that the interests and human rights
of the now disenfranchised displaced victims of the storm are
no longer respected in their former communities or by the federal

Although the government is not fulfilling its obligations, many
non-governmental organizations are trying to help survivors of

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
was able to win some relief for the working class families who
could lose their homes. They convinced the City Council to amend
City Ordinance #26031 to make the Lower Ninth Ward a hardship
case, protecting those who were hardest hit by the failing levees
from the seizure ordinance. ACORN is currently fighting to win
protection for families whose properties are listed on gutting
lists of ACORN and other organizations; as well as fighting for
real legal notification for displaced homeowners and a more realistic
timeline to cleanout homes.

Since December, ACORN has gutted more than 1,500 homes. They
are offering families-at no cost-to have ACORN gut and preserve
their home. ACORN is also working to have homes “adopted”
by donors covering gutting costs for low income families. ACORN
is also looking for volunteers and organizations to come to New
Orleans this summer to help save the homes.

ACORN still faces an uphill battle as contacting all those affected
by this policy who are still spread across the country remains
difficult. Information is the most powerful weapon in this battle
for working class neighborhoods.

Though the human rights situation in New Orleans remains woeful,
there is still a chance to salvage the hopes of these struggling
families and to save their homes. You can help honor the upcoming
One Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina even if the New Orleans
City Council and the federal government refuse to.

If you are displaced from New Orleans or know someone who is:

Call ACORN to begin the process to save your home now and get
a home on the clean-out list, call 1-800-239-7379, x187.

Even if you do not know someone affect you can help by:

1. Donating
or make a tax-deductible check to:

ACORN Institute – Hurricane
Recovery and Rebuilding Fund,
1024 Elysian Fields Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117.

2. Volunteer
with the Home Clean-out Demonstration Program.

3. Spread
the Word
about ACORN’s work in your local community

4. Contact ACORN if
you have other ideas about how you can help

Stephen Bradberry is the Head Organizer of ACORN New Orleans
and recipient of the 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award

Jeffrey Buchanan is the Information Officer for the Robert
F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights