In a recent trip to New Orleans, I met with several residents of public housing who remain displaced. We met to talk about what they want.
As they went around the room to introduce themselves, each of them stood tall and gave their name and stated loudly and unequivocally, "I want to come home."
Many of these residents were born and raised in New Orleans' public housing developments; they are working mothers, grandmothers and elderly and disabled women and men. They have known no other place than their beloved New Orleans, yet they are now living in foreign lands such as Houston; Memphis, Tenn.; Phoenix; Atlanta; and Baton Rouge, La.
They are struggling in these faraway places — unemployed, no transportation to get to a job, no health care and no family or friends nearby. They are depressed, some even talk of committing suicide, others are suffering from extreme high blood pressure, and others have had psychological breakdowns.
With each conversation about coming home they cry; they lived through the storm to end all storms; they lived surrounded by water for three, four and five days, waiting, waiting, waiting for someone to rescue them. And now, more than one year later, they remain in strange, unfamiliar places longing to go home, and they cannot comprehend it.
So why can't they go home? Public housing in New Orleans is allegedly some of the worst government subsidized housing in the country. So much so, that five years ago the federal government took it over.
With the feds at the helm, not much changed before the hurricane other than a reduction in the number of public-housing units — pushing low-income Black families out of the city.
The city, the feds and land developers are planning for the largest urban renewal — and Black removal — in the history of the United States.
Public housing has to be the first to go. In fact, in the days after Hurricane Katrina, a pleased Republican Rep. Richard Baker of Louisiana proclaimed, "(W)e finally cleaned up public housing. We couldn't do it, but God did."
Residents of public housing do not take this statement lightly. To them, Hurricane Katrina should not have been an excuse to get rid of them or their homes. They wonder how the government can get away with keeping them out of the city while many of their homes were untouched by the flood waters. Why weren't they able to just go back when the flood waters subsided and the rest of the city's residents went home? Why did the government spend millions of dollars boarding up their homes instead of repairing them?
They want truthful answers, but they get none. They've been told it may be anywhere from three to five years or more before they can come back to public housing. These residents really don't need answers because they already understand the plan. They know they are no longer welcome.
But it's their city, too; it's a city with a culture that requires their presence. It has a tourist economy that needs their cooking, their music and most of all, their labor. It's their home, and they're coming home regardless. They know it's all a waiting game — and they plan to win.
In the face of an extreme shortage of affordable housing, one wonders why the city and feds would want to demolish perfectly habitable affordable housing. Why can't they go home?
Judith A. Browne-Dianis is co-director of theWashington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, a racial-justice legal and communications organization. She represents New Orleans public housing residents in a lawsuit to re-open their homes.