Over the past several months, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) has been using juvenile arrest reports as a basis for evicting public housing families ("Evicted," March 9). This is an abuse of state juvenile confidentiality laws. More than that, it is the height of hypocrisy -- HANO appears to have been violating the law with one hand and then, with the other, evicting its tenants for alleged crimes.
The New Orleans Police Department deserves its share of the blame for releasing complete juvenile arrest reports to HANO. According to state statute, NOPD is allowed to release bare-bones "identifying information" -- name, age, and charge -- about a child only if he or she is at least 14 years old and has been either arrested for a crime of violence or has been found guilty of a serious drug charge.
In Chicago and San Francisco, police and housing authorities stopped this sort of "information sharing" after housing advocates filed suit. NOPD says that it's reviewing the situation, but hasn't changed anything yet. "As of right now, the policy remains the same," says NOPD spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo. HANO did not return phone calls.
HANO's actions violate more than the letter of the law. The agency's aggressive attitude toward juvenile tenants and their families runs counter to the fundamental goal of juvenile court -- rehabilitation. Many of Louisiana's delinquent kids can, with some help, get back on track and move into adulthood without the burden of a criminal record. To that end, juvenile judges try to find a more stable, productive environment for kids in their courts. A HANO eviction does precisely the opposite. "It's just another strike against these kids and these families," says David Utter, founder and director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.
Congress created the one-strike policy more than a decade ago in response to reports showing that public housing residents were plagued with more than their share of drug crimes and violence. According to the most recent public housing crime data compiled by NOPD, New Orleans' housing developments saw 60 homicides during the first three quarters of 2003 -- more than one out of four of the city's overall murders.
An informal Gambit Weekly survey of HANO's "one-strike" eviction notices from 2003 and 2004 found files describing murders and drug dealing. But it also found eviction notices issued for the behavior of children as young as 10 and for "crimes" as petty as truancy, fistfights and curfew violations. These kids and their families shouldn't be candidates for one-strike evictions.
The name "one-strike" is a misnomer, because it implies that eviction must follow any arrest, says Robert A. Solomon, a law professor at Yale University and former director of the housing authority in New Haven, Conn. Solomon isn't averse to one-strike evictions in situations such as a police search that finds 50 glassine bags of cocaine. A single fistfight is different. "People do make mistakes," he says, "and losing public housing is pretty traumatic."
The average HANO household income is $7,449, which doesn't go far in New Orleans, where there is "a dearth of quality, affordable rental units," according to the October 2001 Blueprint for a Better New Orleans. Also, once a family is evicted by HANO, they are barred from public housing support or Section 8 vouchers for at least three years. That's a tremendous blow to any low-income family -- and it's one that shouldn't be meted out arbitrarily.
In fact, federal officials have instructed local housing authorities to use the one-strike policy sparingly. "Eviction should be the last option explored, after all others have been exhausted," wrote Mel Martinez, head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in an April 2002 letter to all public housing directors. Martinez also counseled "compassion and common sense" in the use of one-strike and cautioned that "applying it rigidly could generate more harm than good."
Preventing needless evictions also makes financial sense. Locally, one in 10 homeless families told Unity for the Homeless that eviction was the main cause of their homelessness. Not only is it stressful for a family to live in a shelter, it also costs more -- three or four times as much as public housing assistance.
Solomon says that in New Haven, the first response to an alleged offense is an informal hearing with staff, followed by a formal hearing. "I really believe in early intervention," he says. This requires management that is in touch with residents. Solomon says he told property managers: "You're like the mayor of this town -- be out on the street; know everyone."
HANO should follow the New Haven model. Instead, in its rush to evict some of this city's most at-risk families for minor offenses, HANO has misused sealed records and opened itself up to a potential class-action lawsuit. One look at HANO's eviction files at First City Court reveals dozens of juvenile arrest reports that should be confidential. More than that, it reveals a heartless approach towards some of our neediest neighbors.