harumph: Cartoon of a Weeping Angel from Doctor Who with the caption "Not the comfy chair!" (Hornblower // Jack is worried)
[personal profile] harumph
It's amazing how over the course of the week I've gone from crying every time someone mentions our trip to being able to say "Things were absolutely corrupt and it's amazing how little has been done" in an almost nonchalant tone. I suppose I should tell you all why I was in a bitchtastic mood on Sunday. Let me start off by saying that our group leaders had no idea that the organization we worked and lived with would turn out to be as corrupt and heartless as it was, so I can't really blame them. They investigated as best they could, I suppose.

Anyway, we lived in and worked with the New Orleans Rescue Mission (their website has disappeared, else I'd link to it), which pre-Katrina (everyone in NO speaks in terms of pre- and post-Katrina, so that's what I'll use) housed and served almost half of the homeless population of New Orleans, being the largest private organization to do so. Post-Katrina, there are 6 men living there (only men, women aren't allowed, although they're almost finished with a new Women's Shelter sponsored by AmeriQuest, which is another issue altogether). The requirements to live there have changed, as well. They now charge $150/week and require all men to have a full-time job. Now, in a city where 2/3 of the population is homeless and displaced, how much sense does that make? It makes sense monetarily for those running the shelter, to be sure, but in terms of, oh, humanitarian work, it's absolute bollocks.

If the fact that we weren't even helping those we wanted to help wasn't bad enough, the type of work we did was ridiculous. I spent most of my time washing brand-new dishes for the women's shelter, or sweeping and mopping the concrete floors of the main shelter, or moving things from one bookcase to the next, or taking out the trash. If I was doing this for a good cause, I wouldn't complain. As it stood, we finished every day by 2 or 3 pm, and the man in charge of directing our activities (Lou, a contractor, not the man who runs the shelter) wouldn't give us anything else to do. So we got to spend a lot of time downtown in the French Quarter, which by the way, looks absolutely normal. The hurricane didn't hit anywhere near there, so you couldn't even tell there had BEEN a hurricane except for the fact that the garbage service is slow to non-existant.

Some specific examples of the absolute ass-hattery of this organization are thus: first, they asked another girl and myself to put 25 pairs of shoes per box in a set of 12 boxes, yielding 300 pairs of shoes (dun dun dun, math whiz!) which we assumed were going to be taken and distributed somewhere. WRONG. They were taken to the post office and shipped to a company that paid the shelter $50/box. The shelter owners claimed that people had looked through the shoes and no-one had wanted them, but I can tell you honestly that there were shoes in there I would have taken myself! It's bullshit.

Second, on Thursday the sole employee of the shelter (save the owner and his wife) took a group of us (not me, however) to the Food Bank to pick up food. 2,300 pounds of it, in fact, half of which was perishable. For 6 shelter residents and 11 college students, although we were only there another 1.5 days. Now, that would seem a little extreme, wouldn't it? Especially when half of it would go to waste relatively soon. So we asked Donny (the employee) if they planned on giving out meals or lunches or something soon, and he made a vague comment about doing so next week. However, when we asked the actual owners, they said they wouldn't have the capacity to do so (something about the cook not being able to handle it) until May or June. WTF? So they basically TOOK food from the Food Bank knowing it wouldn't be eaten. Why? Search me. I felt like I was stealing from the people who actually needed it, and I think in truth we were, because we helped put it away.

Third, on Friday we put all of the new plates in the Women's Shelter away, but they had 3 sets of dishes and not all of them fit. A woman who had lost her home in the storm found out or something, and instead of simply donating the remaining plates to her, they're selling them to her. How kind.

Now, for a Christian humanitarian organization, that sounds pretty fucking immoral, doesn't it? Also, the shelter is going to be knocked over and redone by Extreme Makeover in the next 2 years, so how much did our work actually help? I couldn't say. We ended up undoing a task a previous group had done (moving filing cabinets OUT of the storage room the former group had put them INTO and placing them in the exact spot they had been in before the first group moved them).

On Thursday afternoon (after the Food Bank incident) we met up with a church group from Missoula (whom we randomly bumped into in the 9th Ward) and worked with the organization they were working with by putting boxes of non-perishable food and toiletries into people's cars in an assembly-line fashion, and serving a hot lunch. That was infinitely more rewarding than anything we had done at the shelter, although what the people needed the most and what we didn't have available to give them was fresh bottled water, because the water in the area is still for the most part undrinkable. 7 months later, mind you.

On Friday we stopped Donny from throwing away 7 large garbage bags full of bakery-style bread and convinced him to let us hand it out to people instead. So we spent the afternoon in "the projects" (Washington Avenue for those familiar) handing out bread to the residents there, "too many" of which live in the apparently overabundant public housing, according to Donny. Whatever. He was an ass. That was also a good experience, because the bread was still good for another couple of days and it would have been shameful to throw it all away.

So basically it was the biggest moral dilemma of my life to date. Not to mention that on Wednesday we took an educational tour of the city, including multiple trips to the now-infamous 9th Ward, the neighborhood completely devastated not by the hurricane, but by the break of poorly constructed levees. It was heartwrenching to see people's homes wrapped around telephone poles or slammed 3 or 4 into each other. Dan, an associate professor at Tulane (I wish I knew his last name, Brooke has his info and I need to get it) took us on our tour and showed us the levees, told us which ones broke and what damage they caused. The damage to the city was done by levee breakage, not by the hurricane, and the levees didn't break because of the hurricane, they broke because they were built poorly.

Thus I had an emotional breakdown on Wednesday and ranted at everyone about how I felt like my time was being wasted, that I felt like I was in a summer camp rather than doing the work I was meant to do, and I still feel that way. So while I can feel good about one or two isolated events during the trip, overall it was unproductive in the sense that I didn't do much of anything for the actual people affected. However, it was definitely eye-opening as well as infuriating. The government is so corrupt... I just can't even describe it. There are no FEMA trailers in the 9th Ward. No-one wants to rebuild there except the people who live there. That neighborhood had the highest percentage of African-American home ownership in the country, and now they're scattered. 2/3 of the population, mostly the African-Americans, is still displaced, and yet the city wants to hold elections for the mayor and other major city offices. What does it matter, really? They're getting what they wanted. "The element" is being forcibly removed from the city.

People can deny that this is a racial issue as much as they want, but the fact is it's as much a racial issue as an economic or political issue. Race is inseparable from it all. The blacks are the majority of the population, and they are also overwhelmingly impoverished. Race and ecomonics, hand in hand. If these elections proceed as planned, without any action taken to allow displaced citizens to vote, the city could very well have its first white mayor in 30 years. Whether that would be good or bad is anyone's guess, but it would certainly prove that the demography of the city is tremendously altered.

So, now you know: it isn't over down there. In some ways it feels like it's barely begun. There is so much work left to be done, and the government on all levels seems to be incapable of handling it. The hurricane might have hit 7 months ago, but if you visited the city you would think it had hit yesterday. The flood waters have gone down, but the damage remains. I've been investigating places like levees.org and Common Ground to find out what I can do while I'm at school, and how I can help when I get back down there. Hopefully I can go back sometime soon and actually do something productive. I don't care if people think the 9th will be flattened and not rebuilt; I'd rather gut a family's home and save them $10,000 and give them hope, even if in the end it comes to naught, than do anything like what I did last week. I've never felt so angry and useless in my life. Not useless, but misused. Wasted. I never want to feel like that again. So please, remember that just because the media thinks of Katrina as old news doesn't mean everything is all better now.

Thank you

Date: 2006-04-06 03:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hrhbunbury.livejournal.com
I wanted to thank you for sharing your story. Having spent a few years working in DC, I have seen the "pretty end" of government corruption, but I can only imagine what it was like to be down there.

I was wondering if you would mind me sharing your story in one of my classes. I *may* be teaching a political sociology course next fall and one of the things I want to talk about is the privatization of "public works." And I think your experience would be eye-opening for them.

Re: Thank you

Date: 2006-04-06 06:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] harumph.livejournal.com
That sounds like a class I would take! :) You can certainly use my story; hopefully it will be as eye-opening for your students as it was for me.

Date: 2006-04-06 03:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] echac.livejournal.com
You've definitely given me pause for thought. Aside from what I see in the news here in the UK, I still can't imagine how how genuinely horrific the experience must have been, and continues to be for those affected by Katrina.

I also think there's a lot of courage in what you've recently experienced, and the thoughts and views you've accumulated as a result. Your empathy is what separates you from the people you see supposedly doing all they can to help and in my eyes, that sets you off on the right path.

Again, such an insightful post. Thank you for sharing *hugs*

Date: 2006-04-08 07:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] forthegenuine.livejournal.com
Allison. You are my hero.

June 2011

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