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By Jordan Flaherty, Colorlines

Crawling through a hole in a fence and walking through an open doorway, Shamus Rohn and Mike Miller lead the way into an abandoned mid-city hospital. They are outreach workers for the organization UNITY of Greater New Orleans and they do this all day long—searching seemingly empty houses and buildings for homeless people—so they can offer services and support.

“We joke about having turned criminal trespass into a full-time job,” says Rohn.

Up a darkened stairway and through the detritus of a building that looks like it’s been scavenged for anything of value to sell, Rohn and Miller enter a sundrenched room. Inside is Michael Palmer, a 57-year-old white former construction worker and merchant seaman who has made a home here.

Palmer—his friends call him Mickey—is in some ways lucky. He found a room with a door that locks. He salvaged some furniture from other parts of the hospital, so he has a bed, a couch and a rug. Best of all, he has a fourth-floor room with a balcony. “Of all the homeless,” he says, “I probably have the best view.”

Palmer has lived here for six months. He’s been homeless since shortly after Katrina, and this is by far the best place he’s stayed in that time.

“I’ve lived on the street,” he says. “I’ve slept in a cardboard box.” He is a proud man, thin and muscled, with a fresh shave, clean clothes and a trim mustache. He credits a nearby church, which lets him shave and shower.

But Palmer would like to be able to pay rent again. “My apartment was around $450. I could afford $450. I can’t afford $700 or $800, and that’s what the places have gone up to.”

Keeping himself together, well-dressed and fresh, Mickey is trying to go back to the life he had. “I have never lived on the dole of the state,” he says proudly. “I’ve never been on welfare, never collected food stamps.” Before Katrina, Palmer did repairs and construction. “I had my own business,” he says. “I had a pickup truck with all my tools, and all that went under water.”

Palmer is one of thousands of homeless people living in New Orleans’ storm-damaged and abandoned homes and buildings. Four years after Katrina, recovery and rebuilding has come slow to this city, and there are many boarded-up homes to choose from. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center counts 65,888 abandoned residential addresses in New Orleans, and this number doesn’t include any of the many non-residential buildings, like the hospital Palmer stays in. Overall, about a third of the addresses in the city are vacant or abandoned, the highest rate in the nation. UNITY for the Homeless is the only organization surveying these spaces, and Miller and Rohn are the only full-time staff on the project. They have surveyed 1,330 buildings—a small fraction of the total number of empty structures. Of those, 564 were unsecured. Nearly 40 percent of them showed signs of use, including a total of 270 bedrolls or mattresses.

UNITY estimates that there are at least 6,000 squatters and a total of about 11,000 homeless individuals in the city. The organization has received funding from the federal government for 752 housing vouchers specifically to help house the city’s homeless population. They have put people on a list, with those in the most danger of dying if they don’t get help on the top of the list. However, the vouchers still have not arrived, and at least 16 people from the list have already died while waiting. “The stress and trauma that these people have endured cannot be overstated,” says Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY. “The neighborhood infrastructure that so many people depended on is gone.”

The abandoned building dwellers they’ve found are generally older than the overall homeless population, with high rates of disability and illness. The average age is 45, and the oldest was 90. Over 70 percent report or show signs of psychiatric disorders, and 42 percent show signs of disabling medical illnesses and problems. Disabling means “people that are facing death if not treated properly,” clarifies Rohn. “We’re not talking about something like high blood pressure.”

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