Clear the way back to public housing

I am a native New Orleanian living in Natchez, Miss., due to the evacuation of my neighborhood. My community is the area bounded by Bayou St. John, the London Avenue Canal, Mirabeau Avenue and DeSaix Boulevard. The anchor of this community is the St. Bernard Public Housing Development, where I grew up and where I worked before the storm.

When I left this community, six days after Katrina, I remember looking down from Interstate 610 at St. Bernard Avenue. My entire community was underwater to the rooflines, except for the public housing area. Hundreds or thousands of men, women and children had been saved from the storm and the flood, not by the politicians and the power elite of the city, but by the solid construction and multiple floors of the housing development.

When leaders had fled in terror, abandoning the people, the bricks and mortar had saved them. The people of our neighborhood have always thought that in times of hurricanes and floods the "bricks" would protect them, and they were correct.

Lately, the politicians and the media have been discussing who should and shouldn't be allowed to come home. Those without jobs are deemed undesirable. It appears that some people have given up on ridding New Orleans of poverty; now they just want to declare war on poor people. But every citizen has an absolute right to return to his neighborhood unconditionally -- job or no job.

The politicians were not stuck in their homes for days without power, food and water. They were not in the Superdome, the Convention Center, on the interstates and bridges. They were not on the buses and sleeping on the cots at the Astrodome and at the many other shelters around the country. How dare they tell the people what to do now? The people were left to their own devices to survive the crisis. We will come back using our own devices.

Then we will fight to share in the resources that are available for the redevelopment of these communities. The first career opportunity for all New Orleanians should be to rebuild their own communities.

I have been to more than 20 cities since I left my home with a shattered soul. I have learned two major lessons from my travels. First, there is no place like home. Second, every evacuee I've met in the many cities wants to come home. They just need somewhere to live.

I've been home three times in the past three months, and each time it has been for a protest or march calling for the city to find decent housing for the working poor to live. Why must we protest for safe, decent and sanitary housing when most of the public housing stock suffered less damage than the private stock?

In my area, the public housing development is the cornerstone to the repopulation of the entire community. With the private housing stock totally devastated, the key to the return of many people is for HUD to fulfill its mission to provide housing for the people who need it, regardless of their employment status.

Some might question repopulating the St. Bernard because it had problems, such as crime, poor schools, poverty and unemployment. It might interest those critics to know that in my travels, I've encountered people who questioned rebuilding New Orleans for the same reasons. I tell them that New Orleans was not perfect, but it wasn't all bad, and now is our chance to make it better. The same goes for the St. Bernard.

Furthermore, poor families today need public housing for the same reason my mother needed it when she moved me and my six brothers and sisters into a three-bedroom apartment in the St. Bernard. At age 7, I saw my life improve suddenly and dramatically. Instead of spending nearly every penny on rent, my mother was able to provide us with enough food, occasional new clothes along with hand-me-downs, and separate bedrooms for the boys and the girls.

I maintain an undying love for the people of my neighborhood. What one loves, he should be willing to fight for. I am willing to fight for the right of the people who were left to drown in the St. Bernard to return, if they wish, to their homes -- with or without a job.

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M. Endesha Juakali is the former chairman of New Day Black Community Development Corp. in the St. Bernard public housing development. His e-mail address is ejuakali [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Since flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina forced residents to leave, the St. Bernard public housing development has been a place of deserted yards, empty porches and bare trees.