10 Years After Katrina: Reflections on Injustice, Advocacy and Reasons for Hope

08/27/2015 02:41 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2016

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, and together with the flooding in its aftermath created hundreds of thousands of newly homeless men, women and children. Ten years later, let's reflect again on this devastating event -- and on some lessons, injustices and still unfinished business -- in New Orleans and in our country.

One crucial and very timely lesson is that homelessness can be precipitated by any number of events: a lost job, a health crisis or a natural disaster. Suddenly everything is gone, the ground shifts, and you have nothing. Natural disasters show us that catastrophe can and does happen to all human beings. But Katrina also reminds us that true devastation happens more regularly -- and predictably -- to those who are already poor and marginalized.

Hurricanes happen, but for those with resources, insurance payments, family and friends come to the rescue. For poor Americans, those safeguards are lacking -- friends and family are typically strapped themselves, and insurance coverage is thin or absent. And the levees to protect poor and marginalized communities from the storm tend to be weak.

So it is with "regular," non-natural disaster related homelessness. It can and does happen to anyone. But for those who are already poor, the likelihood is much higher. Currently, in addition to the 2.5 to 3.5 million Americans who are already living in shelters or on the streets, over 7 million more are living doubled up with friends or relatives because they have lost their own homes and cannot afford new housing.

And the safety net to protect them is in tatters. Currently, only one in four Americans who is poor enough to qualify for low income housing assistance actually receives it. Those left out go onto waiting lists that are years long, and often closed. In the meantime, once they have exhausted their resources and the hospitality of friends and relatives, they sleep in cars, or in parks, woods or on sidewalks. This is what the growing inequality now gripping our country looks like on the ground.

Increasingly, the picture includes a police presence. Many cities are responding to homelessness -- the most visible manifestation of extreme poverty in the midst of plenty -- by trying to "sweep" it from public view. The criminalization of homelessness is on the rise, even as more and more studies show that it is a counterproductive waste of public resources, in addition to a violation of basic human rights and dignity.

In New Orleans itself, some parts of the city have made significant progress toward recovery, but 10 years later it is clear that that progress has not been equally shared. Public housing -- largely undamaged by the storm -- was fenced off and demolished, leaving former residents without homes to return to. Although promised the right to return to new, mixed-income developments, long delays have caused many to simply give up and establish lives elsewhere. Unknown numbers of residents remain living in housing without running water or electricity. And after taking positive steps to house homeless residents who congregated in large downtown encampments, the city has returned to a criminalization approach to homelessness, clearing people out without providing an alternative.

But reflecting on Katrina 10 years later, there is also good news and some signs of hope. The impact of the hurricane brought unprecedented attention and galvanized national as well as local advocacy. At the National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty, we teamed up with local groups and pro bono law firm partners to bring the power of the law to bear on behalf of the thousands of families and individuals made homeless by the hurricane, filing two separate class actions suits against FEMA, winning housing rights and resources for tens of thousands of people. We successfully fought efforts in Congress to "suspend" the education rights of children made homeless by the storm, and published manuals and held trainings to make sure families and advocates could enforce those rights. We worked with our allies to focus the attention of international human rights bodies on the plight of these American internal refugees, lending support to local advocacy.

10 years later, we are heartened that the federal government is taking a stronger stand against criminalizing homelessness and for offering housing instead. We're heartened by the recent filing of a statement of interest by the Department of Justice in our Boise criminalization case, sending a strong message to cities around the country -- including New Orleans -- to stop arresting homeless people and instead focus on constructive alternatives. We're heartened that the USICH has taken a strong stand against the forced dispersal of homeless encampments and urged local governments to connect people to permanent housing and supportive services instead.

And we're heartened by the growing recognition that housing ends homelessness -- whether the result of natural disaster or the more ordinary daily disaster of extreme poverty in America. Let's continue the fight to turn that recognition into reality.