First Person

Taking on My Bucket List (and Homelessness)

Before I was homeless, I had a good life. I wasn’t rich, but I was far from poor, with two fairly successful small businesses (Kai’s Mobile Auto Detailing and MerMaids Maid Service) and a rental house on Maui. I drove a Mercedes 300E and my wife had a Nissan Sentra. We had no debt.

So, how did I end up homeless? I keep wondering where I went wrong.

In December 2011, I had my first seizure. On top of that, I was having marital problems and losing clients left and right due to the bad economy. Over the next few months, I averaged 2 to 3 seizures a week and was in and out of the hospital. My wife split somewhere around that time. My businesses fell apart while I wasn’t there to run them, and I spent all my savings trying to hang on instead of cutting my losses and saving what I could. By the time I got evicted, I couldn’t even afford a storage unit. I left my house with what I could fit in a red wagon and a suitcase.

I managed to get a job as a maintenance man at the Maui Sunset, a timeshare condo complex, but I was still having seizures. My doctor was convinced that they were caused by heavy metal toxicity (due to a bullet that has been in my leg for twenty years), and he put me through chelation therapy twice a week for three months. But due to the horrible side effects, I wasn’t able to maintain my job. Shortly after that, I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (heart disease) and I was told that without a transplant I had two years.

Let’s face it – the chances for a homeless man with epilepsy getting on the donor list are pretty slim. My seizures are now followed by 12 hours of sight loss. And I had to wonder – is this what it comes down to? I die alone, on the streets? Nothing to leave behind? Very few people to grieve my passing?

In a weird moment of clarity that you get when you have nothing else to lose, I decided I wanted to take a bucket list tour of the United States with my little dog Savannah to see and do all of the things that I have always wanted to do.

First off, I had heard of this place in Eugene, Oregon called Opportunity Villagetiny homes for the homeless. It was touted as the city’s unique approach to solving the homeless problem. Originally I thought that I would make that a stop on my trip, pick up the plans, and bring them back to Maui to start a village there. But when I got there my impression was that it was a group of homeless people that kept taking over city property until the city just let them stay. No plans, and nothing to bring back to Maui.

Savannah and I have been on the road for more than a year now. We left Maui on June 19, 2014. We have visited just about all of the things on my bucket list: Disneyland, the Smithsonian museums in D.C. (still missing the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and the National Postal Museum), and Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank, New Jersey. I’m also a huge fan of the show Comic Book Men, and I got to spend time with the stars.

Right now, we are in Washington D.C. We have been harassing Senate staffers in order to find a Senator who will sponsor legislation for a national Homeless Bill of Rights but it’s just really hard to do without an address. I now have cards from the offices of all one hundred Senators. I even put them in alphabetical order by state. Since Rhode Island was the first state to pass a Homeless Bill of Rights, I have been able to get some response from Senator Jack Reed’s staff.

As time passes, I look more and more like just another “crazy homeless guy,” and who knows, maybe I am just another crazy homeless guy. I feel like no one is listening or taking me seriously. I have no resources or backing of any kind, and these people deal with the powerful and wealthy all day long. I wish this were like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But it feels more like Oliver Twist saying, “Please sir, may I have some rights?”



Remembering Katrina in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

This is an excerpt from a post that first appeared at Medium.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water, thousands of people were displaced, and at least 1,800 people were killed. The country watched in disbelief as residents—a disproportionate number of whom were black—pleaded for help on rooftops as then-President George W. Bush watched from afar—first from Washington, D.C., then overhead from a helicopter. All the while, the city’s poorest community, the Lower Ninth Ward, had up to 12 feet of water sitting stagnant in some areas for weeks. It was the last place to have power and water service restored, and the last to have the flood waters pumped out.

Despite the dire circumstances, news outlets and law enforcement quickly began to label the black residents as “looters.” They were not viewed as people trying to survive, but rather as criminals who needed to be reined in. New Orleans Police Department Captain James Scott instructed police officers that they had the “authority by martial law to shoot looters.”

Even in our hour of greatest need, black people are often not afforded the tragic gift of vulnerability. Instead, we are an ever present threat.

And that’s what they did: All told, 11 people were shot by law enforcement officials following the storm. The most well-known incident occurred six days after Katrina hit, when members of the NOPD—unprovoked and armed with assault rifles—stormed the Danziger Bridge and began firing on a group of unarmed civilians in search of food. Two people were killed, including a mentally disabled man who was shot in the back and a 17-year-old high school student. Four more were seriously injured, including three members of the Bartholomew family. Leonard Bartholomew suffered a gunshot wound to the head, his daughter was wounded in the abdomen, and his wife Susan lost an arm due to the severity of the gun blast that hit her. Five officers were arrested and convicted. Ten years later, the Bartholomew family’s civil suit remains unsettled.

The feeling that black lives did not matter was most famously summed up by rapper Kanye West when he stated firmly during a primetime telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

As Hurricane Katrina revealed, the consequences of poverty, segregation, police brutality, and environmental racism coming to a head have tragic results.

Amidst the growing threat of climate change, this perfect storm must not be forgotten. While an extreme weather event, such as a flood, heat wave, or hurricane may seem like an equal opportunity force of destruction, in reality these events exacerbate the underlying injustices that exist in our communities year round. Understanding just how vulnerable low-income, black communities are to these threats is critical to protecting black lives in the 21st century.

Today, much of New Orleans is back to normal, with more than half of the city’s neighborhoods reaching their pre-storm population levels. However, that’s far from the case for the infamous Lower Ninth Ward. In the years following Katrina, only about 37 percent of households have returned home. Black residents who wanted to rebuild simply couldn’t afford to as federal aid was allocated based on home values rather than the cost of construction. The average gap between the damage accrued and the grants awarded to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward was $75,000, more than twice the average household income of the residents there.

As Professor Beverly Wright of Loyola University New Orleans explained, “pre-storm vulnerabilities continue to limit the participation of thousands of disadvantaged individuals and communities in the after-storm reconstruction, rebuilding, and recovery. In these communities, days of hurt and loss have become years of grief, dislocation, and displacement.”

Hurricane Katrina exposed that even in our hour of greatest need, black people are often not afforded the tragic gift of vulnerability. Instead, we are an ever present threat.

Today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement—a national call to action and response against “extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes” —is focused on just that. The movement demands accountability of law enforcement, while affirming the need to invest in low-income, black communities “in order to create jobs, housing and schools.” It is this last demand that is often left out of media discussions of the movement, but is critical to the health, wealth, and well-being of African American families.

Read the full text of Tracey’s column here.

For further commentary from Tracey on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, check out the latest TalkPoverty Radio podcast, which she co-hosts with Rebecca Vallas.



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.