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HANO Protest Becomes Scuffle With St. Bernard Residents
By Gwen Filosa
The Times Picayune
Wednesday 05 April 2006
Forcing their way onto the grounds of the hurricane-battered St. Bernard public housing development Tuesday, tenants and political activists clashed with security officers during a protest that drew police officers to the sprawling complex in the 7th Ward.
Seven months after the storm, tenants said they want answers on the future of one of the city's largest public housing sites. Several accused the Housing Authority of New Orleans of dragging its feet to appease a growing disdain for housing the poor in the city's post-Katrina landscape.
"This is our home," said Pamela Mahogany, moments after a small but volatile group of residents pushed and pulled on a chain-link fence in a brief tug-of-war with HANO security. The fracas ended when HANO officials called in police officers.
"Everyone who lives in the projects is not on welfare," said Mahogany, a licensed practical nurse in New Orleans, now living across town with her 16-year-old son. "Everyone does not sell drugs. Guess what? I ain't never sold none in my life. Guess what? I'm a nurse and I work every day. They got good and bad on the Lakefront. In Eastover, they got bad people. If you get rid of public housing, you're not going to get rid of it (drugs)."
Home Is Home
Today, Mahogany lives in a home where the $1,000-a-month rent is paid for by a government-issued "Disaster Voucher." At St. Bernard, she said, she paid $399 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. She wants her old neighborhood back.
HANO, so badly mismanaged in its recent past that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development runs the agency with a one-person board of commissioners and contracted-out administrators, has remained tight-lipped about what will happen to its pre-Katrina inventory of 5,700 units.
Pre-Katrina, the St. Bernard complex housed 963 families in the sprawling and time-worn development that today stretches across the 7th Ward as an abandoned, fenced-in ruin.
"HUD doesn't care about us," Mahogany said. "They just want to tear it down."
Led by housing activists Jay Arena and Elizabeth Cook, about two dozen residents called for an end to "racist politicians" before tearing through the fence. About 100 people attended the event, including many volunteers who said they were only there to hand out safety items, such as mold-filtering masks and gloves.
Arena, bullhorn in hand, walked through the open entrance of a chain-link fence recently installed to seal off the complex. When HANO's security director, Mitchell Dusset, tried to shut the gate, pushing and pulling erupted on each side of the fence. Nearby police officers were flagged down.
"They stormed in and almost knocked over Sgt. Dusset," said Cynthia Burch, HANO's top attorney, who attended the noon protest as lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups assembled with residents. "It's criminal trespassing."
Furious Security Chief
The protest-turned-schoolyard-type scuffle left hot tempers on both sides of the public housing debate.
"They don't run over me like that," Dusset sternly told one woman after the gate, topped with razor-wire, had been shoved back and forth and finally removed by security guards.
Dusset, recovering from foot surgery and using a single crutch Tuesday, stood grim-faced after the scuffle. A woman in a motorized wheelchair had run over his injured foot during the confusion, he said.
"I'm in extreme pain," he said.
"I pushed in, I'm not playing," said Edward Buckner, 46, who grew up in the St. Bernard complex. "I was born and raised here. I came here to fight for my people."
Cook said HANO staged a "show of force" and tried to block residents from entering. She said later that two residents reported minor injuries from the scuffle, and blamed HANO security.
There were no arrests.
For months, HANO has allowed residents to get into their apartments to retrieve belongings.
In the end, while protesters claimed victory, HANO couldn't say when - or if - St. Bernard will ever be rebuilt.
"We don't have any plans now," HANO spokesman Adonis Expose said. "It's still closed."
And that's just fine with Sonya Davis, 47, a former tenant who relocated to Houston after the storm.
"It's a drug-infested, crime-ridden murder trap," Davis said Tuesday over the phone from Houston. Davis, who worked in food service for Orleans Parish schools, said she lived in St. Bernard as a young girl and later as a young mother, but had moved out for good several months before Katrina.
"If you put that thing back up, the whole city is going down," said Davis, who lived in the 6th Ward with a Section 8 voucher before the storm, and liked it.
St. Bernard was essentially put out of its misery by Katrina, Davis said, and the former tenants need to move on. Public housing is not meant to be a permanent home for generations, she said.
"They need to get out of that mentality," she said. "Life goes on. This is over with. You want to come back to something better. You want to move up and on."
Pre-Katrina, HANO helped house 14,000 families - 50,000 people - in complexes or through the federal Section 8 subsidy program.
Since the storm, Expose said, HANO's client service department has used its Web site, www.hano.org, to help track the families left homeless by the floodwaters.
Along with Lakeview, eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward, the city's public housing community was devastated by the levee failures and subsequent flooding.
Six of the 10 traditional developments were storm-damaged and remain vacant. Only recently has the Iberville complex, which hedges the French Quarter and had some 800 units occupied before the storm, been reopened to its former residents. Today, about 188 families live at Iberville, Expose said.
Seven months after Katrina, HANO has yet to offer even short-term plans for what to do with the damaged complexes, with the exception of C.J. Peete in Central City. That complex, already in stages of demolition well before Katrina, will be torn down and rebuilt with "mixed income" homes similar to the River Garden community in the Lower Garden District, once home to the troubled and dilapidated St. Thomas complex.
HANO maintains that it is doing everything it can to help residents find housing and return to New Orleans.
"We have to clean up each unit, and see if they want to come back," Expose said.
On Tuesday, HANO officials privately worried that residents entering St. Bernard apartments would be exposed to mold and other elements.
But Mahogany said she didn't see why HANO was suddenly concerned for her health.
"We've been living in mold, we've been living with backed-up sewage," she said. "We've been living with gunshots over our heads and broken everything. Now all of a sudden it's a hazard. It's been a hazard, but we want to come home."
Asked if she would rather live at a newer complex, such as the River Garden development that is mostly a private endeavor but includes low-income housing, Mahogany said, "That's going to take forever."
HANO is not accepting applications for new tenants. Iberville has a waiting list, said former St. Bernard resident Edwin Grant, 49, who now shares a room at the St. Jude community center with his sister and mother as they wait for a unit at the St. Bernard complex.
On Tuesday, as he walked around St. Bernard after the fracas at the gate, Grant said he would prefer to move into Iberville. He grew up in the St. Bernard complex but is ready to say goodbye. Looters broke into his second-floor Senate Street apartment after the storm and stole his most prized possessions: a bass guitar, keyboard and stereo.
Meanwhile, Grant said he has been unemployed since the storm, having worked for nine years as a security guard - with no benefits. He said he wants something in the $10-$12 an hour range, but with health coverage and other benefits.
HANO meets April 19 at 10 a.m. at 1400 Semmes Street, near the Fischer complex in Algiers.