Civil Legal Aid Must Play a Larger Role in Disaster Recovery

I can barely believe it was 10 years ago that Hurricane Katrina upended our corner of the world. Almost two thousand lives were lost and there are damages of $108 billion dollars and counting, making it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

In the terrible aftermath of a natural disaster, everyone recognizes the importance of water, food, and shelter as a first response. But one thing many people don’t think about is this: providing access to expert civil legal help is absolutely essential to rebuilding communities and lives.

Immediately after Katrina, people who had lost their jobs needed help getting their final paychecks from businesses and employers that no longer existed. Some landlords rented out damaged and dangerous properties with the promise of quick repairs that never happened. Other landlords found it profitable to rent out the same residence simultaneously to different desperate families

Moreover, a year after the storm, FEMA, claiming it overpaid thousands of hurricane victims, sent more than 150,000 collection letters. Insurance companies claimed that much of the damage was due to flooding, and that the policies they had issued did not cover those losses. And, to qualify for repair funds, people whose family records had been destroyed by the storm or who had never officially filed documents in probate court suddenly needed to prove they owned houses that had been passed down for generations. These challenges were amplified for the region’s most financially vulnerable individuals and families.


For 10 years, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), a civil legal aid organization I run, has been on the front lines helping people recover from the storm. When a landlord displaced nearly 300 families in order to charge higher rent, we challenged him in court. When lack of clear property titles threatened the ability of homeowners to access millions of rebuilding funds administered by the government, our staff and volunteer attorneys helped them clear the legal hurdles. As scam contractors exploited families who were trying to rebuild their homes, legal aid attorneys held them accountable in court. I’m proud to say we have provided assistance to nearly 400,000 people. We continue to represent Katrina survivors today, as Katrina remains our single largest civil legal aid challenge in our nation’s history.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned our lesson about the importance of providing civil legal aid after disasters. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, only $1 million out of the $60 billion appropriated by Congress was earmarked for civil legal aid.

If you have doubts about why we should make sure people have legal help, consider this: even today, SLLS is battling shady contractors who never rebuilt roofs or kitchens as promised, but took their customers’ money and skipped town. And FEMA—still claiming they overpaid people—is taking money from seniors’ social security checks.

I acknowledge that having access to a lawyer or some sort of legal support is not a magic fix. But it is an underappreciated model for how we should react to future disasters. Just as we have rebuilt even stronger levees to protect New Orleans, we should strengthen civil legal aid to protect our nation’s families and increase access to justice.


First Person

Finding Salvation in the Floodwaters of Katrina

Editor’s note: This first-person narrative of living through Hurricane Katrina is adapted from Gerald Anderson’s newly published memoir, Still Standing: How an Ex-Con Found Salvation in the Floodwaters of New Orleans, and from his “My Katrina” series that was originally published in Street Sense.

Ten years ago at the age of 37, Gerald Anderson was evacuated to D.C. after rescuing victims during the flooding in New Orleans. Busses took him and other Katrina victims from the airport to the D.C. Armory and then moved him from one hotel to another. Finally, he was told to leave.

With no place to stay, he moved in with one of his homegirls from New Orleans. His friends were offered apartments, but because of his criminal record, no one would rent to him. He put up signs and did odd jobs to earn money. He also sold drugs, and before long he was back to the cycle of drugs, prison, and homelessness.

Meanwhile, his whole family was in Texas and with the help of the Internet, he was able to find and contact his mother, siblings, and nephews shortly after arriving in D.C. Yet he had no means to visit.

Everything began to change when he learned he could write for and sell Street Sense. He was so beloved by his customers that in 2013 they pooled airline miles to send him back to New Orleans to visit, eight years after Katrina.

But six months later, when he missed two visits to his parole officer, and hence two urine tests, he had to appear in court. His urine tested positive for drugs. The judge could have sent him back to prison; instead she sentenced him to a drug treatment program.

That was in April 2014. Within three months Anderson moved to a recovery home in Arlington, Virginia and has been drug-free ever since. As soon as he received copies of his book, he went right over to the courthouse to visit the judge and sign a copy for her.

Anderson has built a new family in D.C.—his Street Sense customers—and he plans to remain living in the area. In the future he plans to mentor young men, so that they won’t make the mistakes he made.

~Susan Orlins

It was the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans.

While my three friends and I were paddling in a boat that we’d found at an evacuated house in the rich folks’ part of town, we saw another friend Calio screaming for help. His girlfriend, Michelle, was in labor inside their house.

The flooding was so high that there was no way to get her out. So we fought the waves to get tools and a ladder into the living room from a shed out back. And then—with Michelle screaming and writhing the whole time—we pounded at the ceiling until, finally, we broke through to the sky. Calio climbed the ladder and poked his head and arms above the roof. He waved a white sheet as we held tight to the base of the ladder and prayed for help.

Meanwhile, the military had been dropping boxes containing food and water that hit with big splashes and then floated. Inside the boxes we found hot packs of Salisbury steak, peas, mashed potatoes, and Snickers.

I went upstairs to feed Michelle’s two boys, who were eight and twelve. They were huddled together wide-eyed on the bed they shared.

They wanted to know, “What’s happening?”

“The water gonna come in here?”

“Mama gonna be okay?”

I told them, “Mama be fine. Soon y’all have a new baby.”

Like the rest of us, they relieved themselves in a bucket, which we emptied into plastic bags.

After about forty minutes of wondering whether help would ever come, we heard a whirring sound from a helicopter circling right above that made the whole house vibrate.

And then we heard Calio talking to someone.

He yelled down that he’d gotten a helicopter’s attention.

“Tell them to come down quick!” I called.

We heard the brrrrrm of the helicopter getting louder. Calio came down the ladder, and told us, “The helicopter man say move our ladder. They gonna get in here. Now!”

We looked up and saw the guy stepping down this wiggly ladder that was attached to the helicopter, which was hovering above the roof.

Three more guys came down. One asked, “Man, why didn’t she leave?”

They told Michelle to stay calm, to open her legs, to breathe. She was screaming and crying. I could hardly bear to watch.

Next we knew, a slimy infant was oozing out between her legs. A medic stroked the little body, and a squeaky whaaa whaaa came out of its tiny mouth.

Maybe it was an hour later that they put the baby in a sack—like a duffle bag—and hauled him up their ladder and through the roof. One of the guys wrapped Michelle in a big sling and towed her up next to be with her new son and escape the nightmare below.

Calio stayed with us. We tried to get him to go. The helicopter man asked him, “You sure you don’t want to come?”

He answered, “I’m just gonna stay. I know you gonna look after my family.” They had already taken Michelle’s other two boys up in sacks, and they offered to take the rest of us. But I replied, “No can do buddy.”

I still wasn’t believing it. I couldn’t imagine the storm getting any more intense, even though the helicopter man said, “I don’t know why y’all staying here. Ten hours from now it’s gonna hit. I’m telling y’all, get outta here!”

I said, “If it do hit, I know how to survive it. I survived this far. I’m not leaving my hometown.” I thought I was a smartie.

By the time I realized I should have listened, it was too late. I said to my boys, “I’m tellin’ you man, we better get back to the projects where it’s higher ground. We shoulda gone on that helicopter.”

Outside, toppled trees and tangled wires made it impossible to paddle, so we pushed the boat. I pointed to some cats that were mewing on rooftops and shouted, “They got more sense than we got!”

Along the way, we met a man whose roof had fallen in; he told us they were sleeping in the bathtub.  Another family huddled on their porch in prayer. I prayed too, with every move I made.

Beside us, dogs were trying to get help, just like us humans. Some had the mange with scabs and patches of missing fur. They were paddling like crazy, fighting the currents for their lives. Lifeless bloated bodies of little puppies floated by on top of the chin-high water.

That we were in the midst of a terrifying event was further made real by signs scrawled on houses: Please help us! People Dog Cat . . . Need food! . . . GRANDMA INSIDE NEEDS DIALYSIS! . . . Bush get down here right now!

You could hear screams of people trapped in their homes. That’s when I began thinking about those I had left behind when I was released from Orleans Parish Prison only a few weeks earlier. If I were still in a cell, what would be happening to me?

And with this thing getting rougher by the minute, I didn’t even want to imagine what guys were going through in “the hole,” an underground cell where you were sent for fighting or other misbehavior. In addition to unruly inmates, the hole was infested with rats running all over the place. Being below ground, it would surely get flooded.

I thought about my friend Smiley, who was always getting into fights. He’s probably in the hole right now, I thought.

And I thought about friends I had played cards and dominoes with. I even thought about a few deputies I was cool with that I used to talk to at night about the street and what I would do if I beat the charge.

Compared to my battle with Katrina, my time in prison was sweet like Mama’s pecan pie.

But now I worried that deputies would go home to their families and I wondered what would become of those left locked in their cells. It wasn’t until after the storm that I read accounts about deputies abandoning inmates, who were locked up without food and water. I heard that some prisoners knew how to file down toothbrushes and bush combs to make them into keys, which they used to pop the locks. Some, however, stayed behind trying to help others.

There was nothing anyone could do to rescue those behind steel doors—the guys in solitary. Several inmates suffered from conditions like diabetes and epilepsy and didn’t have their medication. Some never made it out.

Many of the prisoners who were left in the rising sewage waters without food or water were teenagers; many were being held for minor violations, and some had not even been charged. But compared to my battle with Katrina, my time in prison was sweet like Mama’s pecan pie.

Finally we got the boat back to the projects. We told every family that in less than ten hours Katrina would hit. The helicopter rescuers had told us, “When it hits, crouch down on the floor.” I thought this must be what it’s like in a plane that’s about to crash.

Yet I continued to question, Could this storm really get any worse? In ten hours, I would find out that so far, I had seen only the beginning.

My book tells the whole story about all the rescues I did with my homeboys and how we looked after folks in the projects.

After Katrina, I would sit in on myself; it was like I gave up. I got sent to prison for selling drugs and after being released I was homeless. I would pay to sleep on people’s floors. One guy locked me out and stole my clothes.

But now selling Street Sense and writing my stories are like big great activities to me. It rocks my body. It’s like club music, hip-hop, go-go – that’s how this process makes me feel.

Before, I didn’t know there was another way. It wasn’t until the judge sentenced me to drug treatment and I did so well, that I got a key to my own place, a recovery home in Virginia, where I live with nine other men.

Now, I know I’ve got somewhere to go, something to do.




Our Perceptions About the “Unworthy Poor” Haven’t Changed

I first learned about the history of the “unworthy poor” when I pursued my Master of Social Work degree. I read about the social movements in the early 20th century and how they tended to divide people in need into people whose poverty was outside of their control – for example, widows or orphaned children – who were deemed deserving of help from society; and people whose poverty could be blamed on their own bad decisions or laziness – they were written off as unworthy of assistance, or the unworthy poor. The implication in the history books was that this bias was a thing of the past.

At Princeton Seminary, in a theology class on the life and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I came across this same assertion that the American ethos about people in poverty had changed. In Dr. King’s Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, he writes of the attitudes in the early 20th century:

“At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s ability and talents… the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber… We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent.”

King’s analysis is spot on in terms of poverty being largely caused by an economy that doesn’t provide full employment.  But his belief that America had progressed beyond its perception of an unworthy poor was inaccurate.

I have been studying and working in the field of social work for nearly twenty years, and I have seen the unworthy poor resurrected time and again in debates about what America should do about poverty. My college sociology classes in the late 1990s coincided with the implementation of a sweeping welfare reform bill that focused on “personal responsibility.” My grad school days saw appeals from “compassionate conservatives” that social services should be left to the churches and non-profits that they claimed were better equipped to help people change their lives.

The insidious narrative of the “welfare queen” left no room to consider their circumstances or their desperation.

Then, in my first social work placement, I encountered firsthand the consequences of the belief that social policies should punish struggling people for their “poor decisions.” I remember two young mothers, each with a child and no source of income.  They turned to our county welfare program for help to meet their children’s basic needs. Both mothers received a small monthly cash grant, but they were denied emergency housing assistance because each had “caused her own homelessness” as determined by the welfare office. In desperation, they moved in with new boyfriends, neither of whom were willing to use birth control. The result was unwanted pregnancies. The response from the system was horrifying: these unborn children would receive no help from the state because their mothers had gotten pregnant while receiving cash assistance.  The insidious narrative of the “welfare queen” left no room to consider their circumstances or their desperation.

Now, more than a decade into my career in social justice advocacy, I have grown accustomed to social policy proposals being based on the assumption that people experience poverty because of their own failures. For example, when national leaders rail against the nation’s largest anti-hunger program and slash its funding in the name of reducing “dependency”—a dependency that in fact doesn’t exist—they are really saying that people in poverty are lazy and should be forced to fend for themselves. It is still acceptable, even popular, to ascribe moral weakness to people in poverty rather than to examine the economic and social structures that hold them there.

Despite Dr. King’s overestimation of progress in attitudes towards the poor, his core message remains relevant today: Only when we change a system that traps so many Americans in a struggle to meet their basic needs will we create an economy defined by opportunity and the chance for anyone to thrive.


First Person

A Story of Why We Need Housing First Right Now

We need a national Housing First plan implemented as soon as possible if we are to effectively deal with the problem of homelessness in America. This is a story that explains why.

I became homeless in 2009 and out of necessity learned how to make the services administered through the Ocean County New Jersey Board of Social Services work for me. They included housing assistance provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), food assistance (SNAP) through the US Department of Agriculture, and cash assistance through the General Assistance program made available by the State of New Jersey.

I am now in permanent Federal Affordable Housing and no longer need social services myself. So I try to use my own experience to help people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless get the social services they need. Currently, Emergency Housing Assistance offered through the Ocean County Board of Social Services is not easy to qualify for. The bureaucratic process is difficult to comprehend, and negotiating through it when you are facing housing insecurity and are stressed out is exceedingly difficult.

For example, I was contacted by members of a local church in my community after they had encountered a young man who was homeless hanging out in a shopping mall. They had given him some new clothing, and now wanted to arrange for me to meet with him because I have experience in homeless outreach, particularly in Ocean County.

In meeting with the young man, it was immediately clear to me that he was in serious trouble, mentally and emotionally. He could not maintain eye contact, tell me what he did that day, or articulate any plans he had for getting out of his present situation. He was sleeping in the wooded areas at night where he couldn’t be seen, and then wandering around during the day trying not to be seen. In my experience, this isolation is a recipe for serious psychological and emotional damage.

I asked him if he wanted a room in a motel or shelter for the night. He enthusiastically said yes.

The bureaucratic process is difficult to comprehend, and negotiating through it when you are facing housing insecurity is exceedingly difficult.

I called a 3-digit number for an Ocean County Board of Social Services’ special response unit that is set up to address emergency situations (although the County’s website says, “Funding is limited so assistance is not always available”) . They have teams available to quickly come and pick up people who are homeless, give them shelter, and take them to a social services office in their county the next day to see if they qualify for more permanent assistance.

I called them, but they wanted to talk with the young man, not me.

They ended up turning him down because he told them the truth: he’d been homeless for four months. Special Response “responded” by saying that they only take people who have been homeless for two weeks or less.

So I arranged to pick him up the next day where he was living in the woods and take him to the Ocean County Social Services office myself. There, he applied and qualified for SNAP and General Assistance, which then allowed him to apply for Emergency Housing Assistance.

In order to qualify for Emergency Housing Assistance, however, he was also required to appear once a week at the Ocean County One-Stop Career Center, located on another side of town and outside the reach of public transportation; and a substance abuse counselor who was also located far from the social services office.

I knew that he—and others like him who are chronically homeless—often can’t meet these requirements and therefore don’t receive the emergency housing they desperately need.

This is why we need Housing First.

Housing First uses a simple model that has been proven to work: it first provides people with housing, and then provides supportive wraparound services in mental and physical health, substance abuse, education, and employment. Housing First apartments are scattered throughout a community which helps formerly homeless reintegrate into their communities. Perhaps the most significant innovation is that Housing First doesn’t put preconditions on eligibility. Other approaches exclude people from receiving housing assistance because they suffer from mental illness, including addiction. Finally, Housing First saves taxpayer money over the long haul, reducing costs that are otherwise incurred by the public for stays at shelters, in jail cells, and in hospital emergency rooms.

After our visit to social services, I discussed the young man’s situation with others in my homeless outreach network. We agreed that the best available alternative for him was to enter a 10-day shelter provided by a local faith-based group. From there he would be able to transition into an in-patient behavioral rehabilitation center that would—upon successful completion of their program—hopefully guide him into permanent housing.

The question all of this begs is this: since only one in four low-income renter households receives federal rental assistance—and a lack of affordable housing is a leading cause of homelessness—shouldn’t we be devoting a larger share of our affordable housing dollars towards a nationwide, Housing First model?

It’s the right thing to do and it saves money. What the hell are we waiting for?



Big Cuts for Labor, Health, Education Programs Reflect House Committee Priorities

In its 2016 funding bill for labor, health and human services, and education programs, many of which support low- and moderate-income Americans, the House Appropriations Committee has made clear that it considers these programs a low priority.

The Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education bill cuts these programs by $3.7 billion below last year’s level.  Moreover, these cuts would compound years of flat or shrinking funding, due largely to the tight funding cap on non-defense discretionary spending of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), so that total funding for programs in this bill would fall to roughly one-sixth below its 2010 value, adjusted for inflation.

Major cuts include the following:

  • Education: The bill cuts federal education programs, many of which serve low- and moderate-income students, by $2.5 billion. In particular, funding for elementary, secondary, and preschool education programs would fall to one-fifth below its 2010 inflation-adjusted level.  The bill would eliminate more than two dozen education programs, including Preschool Development Grants, which give states money to build or expand high-quality preschool programs in high-need communities, and School Improvement Grants, which provide grant funding to boost student achievement in low-performing schools.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS): The bill cuts CMS funding by $649 million, or roughly one-sixth. CMS operates Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and it implements many aspects of health reform, including the federally run health insurance marketplaces and health reform’s consumer protections. That cut, along with language that would stop HHS from implementing most of health reform, would effectively block most assistance that helps low- and moderate-income people ; it could also hamper Medicare operations.  All told, CMS would have less funding than in 2010, before health reform took effect — and that’s before adjusting for inflation or Medicare’s growing numbers of beneficiaries.
  • Job training: The bill cuts job training funding by $135 million which, after years of deep cuts, brings funding to 23 percent below its 2010 level, adjusted for inflation. The bill’s main job training cut comes from reducing by two-thirds funding that provides extra help in responding to large disruptions such as plant closings, mass layoffs, and natural disasters, as well as to support demonstration projects and technical assistance.
  • “Title X” family planning: The bill eliminates all funding, which totaled $286 million in 2015, for Title X, which supports clinics that offer family planning and related preventive health services, such as screenings for cancer and sexually transmitted infections. The funding is a key source of revenue for these clinics, which reduce or eliminate charges for low-income patients (many of them uninsured). The clinics served more than 4.5 million patients, according to HHS, and helped avert an estimated 870,000 unintended pregnancies in 2013.
  • The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS): The bill cuts CNCS funding by $367 million, or more than one-third. The cuts primarily target AmeriCorps, which provides funding for public service jobs, frequently in economically disadvantaged areas. These cuts would shrink the number of AmeriCorps positions and threaten the modest educational stipend that AmeriCorps workers receive after completing a year of public service work.

The bill does include some much-needed increases in key investments, such as medical research and special education funding.  But, given the bill’s reduced funding levels overall, those increases are only possible because of the damaging cuts it makes to other areas.

The President and congressional Democrats have pushed to raise the BCA’s caps for both non-defense and defense spending, offset by a mix of other cuts and revenue increases.  But congressional Republicans — who run both the House and Senate — have stuck to these tight caps in this year’s budget process for non-defense programs (while using a gimmick to evade the cap on defense).  With the existing cap on appropriations for non-defense programs in place, there’s little chance of adequately funding key investments in labor, health, and education programs in 2016.