LOUISIANA: Bishop objects to evictions, demolitions

December 14, 2007

Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins has sent an open letter to the New Orleans City Council urging council members to "reclaim and renew existing Federal Housing Projects as temporary and dignified homes," for those still in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers and returning residents until proposed, mixed-income housing is developed.

Jenkins' December 6 letter came in response to announcements that the bulk of federal housing projects in New Orleans would be demolished this month and that residents would be evicted by spring from FEMA trailers which have housed people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to a diocesan news release.

"As a Christian," wrote Jenkins to the City Council, "I am compelled to speak of the morality of these decisions. The issue is not simply one of housing or even subsidized housing. Rather, the issue before us is about people, not buildings, and it is primarily a moral issue."

"The diocese is asking for a time out," said Dr. Courtney Cowart, director of strategy and mission for the diocese's Office of Disaster Response (ODR). "FEMA has set a deadline to move 60,000 families from trailers by May 30, 2008, and we have yet to hear how the City plans to house our neighbors as they return to New Orleans."

Saying there is an affordable housing crisis in New Orleans, Cowart said they are asking city officials, FEMA, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and people living in the trailers to sit down together and come up with a "reasonable plan."

"We're asking that HANO doesn't demolish existing housing because they may need it," she said.

HANO is being run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city's homeless population has nearly doubled since the storm -- from 6,300 to 12,000, according to the homeless aid group UNITY.

The Associated Press reported that the demolition project was halted December 14 because the City Council had scheduled a hearing for December 21 after many protests.

The full text of Jenkins' letter follows.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was not room for them in the Inn. (St. Luke 2.3-7)

One cannot read of the journey of the Holy Family unto Bethlehem and fail to see a modern day shadow with the poor of New Orleans. At the behest of the Roman Emperor, St. Joseph and St. Mary journeyed unto his home town, Bethlehem, only to discover there was no place for them. So it was that they huddled in a humble manager and there was born the Savior of the world. Alas, as the Christmas hymn notes, "away in a manger, no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head."

In this holy season, the decision has been made by FEMA that tens of thousands of families or individuals must leave their trailer homes by the spring of next year. Eviction notices are being posted even now. At the very same time, it has been decided by the Housing Authority of New Orleans and HUD that the bulk of the Federal Housing Projects in New Orleans are to be bulldozed to the ground this month. Many of those living in FEMA trailers do not have the resources to find other housing in the notoriously expensive New Orleans housing market. The Case Management system, which is designed to help citizens of the Diaspora and those who have returned home, deal with such challenges, is scheduled to end in March of 2008.

As a Christian, I am compelled to speak of the morality of these decisions. The issue is not simply one of housing or even subsidized housing. Rather, the issue before us is about people, not buildings, and it is primarily a moral issue. As the Christ Child had no place but a manger to lay his head, so it is that many children in New Orleans and of the New Orleans Diaspora have no place to call home. Shall America by policy treat our citizens as mere statistics or shall we respect the dignity of each person as a child of God? The numbers are huge, but as we were reminded by a thoughtful rabbi in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, each number represents a human being. It is not that tens of thousands shall be further displaced but that multitudes of human beings shall again be put out - one human being at a time.

Beware of the claim that low cost housing is available and going unclaimed in New Orleans. There is more to this than empty apartments. The capacity of the growing homeless population in New Orleans and those of the Diaspora to qualify for these apartments, should they exist, is compromised. Without assistance in the form of case management, many do not have the ability to qualify for these apartments. So, if FEMA is putting people on the streets, many will decide if they are going to be homeless, they would rather be homeless in New Orleans than in Houston or Atlanta. We face the potential of an extended situation not unlike that we saw in the Superdome immediately after Katrina.

Community Congresses II and III of New Orleans spoke clearly of the desire to avoid packing the poor into densely populated pockets of poverty. At the same Congresses, the people of New Orleans declared that the residents of the projects should have a voice in determining the future of these homes.

Thus do I call upon the City Council of New Orleans to:

  • Reclaim and renew existing Federal Housing Projects in New Orleans as temporary and dignified homes for our citizens and our families of the Diaspora.

  • Develop alternative sites for the proposed, mixed-income housing rather than utilizing the sites now occupied by the Federal Housing Projects.

  • Delay the destruction of the Federal Housing Projects in New Orleans until such time as the proposed, mixed-income housing is developed and former residents are invited to move into these homes.

  • Include residents, especially former residents of Federal Projects in New Orleans, in the planning process for the immediate and long-term future of public housing in New Orleans.

  • Provide Case Management Assistance for people in the Diaspora, for the homeless of our city, and for those who occupy the Federal Housing Projects.

  • Review our commitment to the dignity of every human being in our city.

Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Charles E. Jenkins, D. D.
Bishop of Louisiana

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