Last week's comments by New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas that displaced public housing residents with no prospects of employment need not apply for the privilege of returning home were grossly insensitive and potentially damaging to the city's rebuilding efforts. Just as New Orleans was rolling out its welcome mat for our annual Mardi Gras celebration -- and trying to show the nation and the world that we haven't lost our spirit -- Thomas declared, "We don't need soap opera watchers right now. ... We're going to target the people who are going to work." Thomas' comments applied only to residents of public housing, not to the many thousands who own or rent in the private market and who are trying desperately to get into FEMA trailers. Thomas, who is African American, also had a special message for displaced black citizens who he says have depended too much on government: "There's just been a lot of pampering, and at some point you have to say, 'No, no, no, no, no.' ... If our legs don't hurt, you can walk somewhere. I'm saying these things to motivate my people."
Thomas' comments came during a meeting of the council's Housing Committee and were echoed by Councilwomen Renee Gill Pratt and Jacqueline Brechtel Clarkson. Many in the audience also expressed their agreement at the time, as did Nadine Jarmon, who heads up the Housing Authority of New Orleans. "Sometimes you have to not do what's politically correct; you have to do what's right," said Jarmon, who was appointed receiver at HANO after the federal government assumed control of the agency because of years of substandard performance. In supporting the council members' comments, Jarmon noted that HANO already has started screening public housing applicants by implementing, among other qualifiers, a "working preference" and a background security check. "Part of the overall process is asking about people's ability or willingness to work," Jarmon said.
No doubt many will cheer such comments, but the truth is that New Orleans' housing and repopulation problems pose a much more complicated picture than that presented by the council members and Jarmon last week. Sure, New Orleans' fragile social, economic and health-care infrastructure can't stand any more stress. And sure, what our recovery efforts need more than anything else is a "roll up your sleeves and get it done" attitude and work ethic. But before we take up our welcome mat and post "Don't come home" signs at all public housing sites, maybe we should take a closer look at who will be affected by this new "tough love" policy.
For example, what about the elderly? At least one public housing development -- the Guste Highrise -- was populated overwhelmingly by senior citizens before Hurricane Katrina. Those residents already earned the right to a decent life in their sunset years, and many of them are the sources of family and community history in their neighborhoods. Do we just tell them to stay away because they can't pick up a shovel and load debris onto a truck?
And what about the handicapped and the sick? Do we just push them away and tell them, "You're on your own"? To be sure, New Orleans and its leaders must make some tough decisions in the days and weeks to come, but that does not mean we should become callous to the human condition.
The problems with -- and the consequences of -- Thomas' remarks extend beyond New Orleans. Houston now rightly feels abused, as if New Orleans has effectively "dumped" its poorest and neediest people on the one city that opened its arms unconditionally and took in all of our citizens, regardless of race or economic circumstance. The Houston Chronicle, in an editorial last week, stated, "[T]o Houstonians who indiscriminately opened their homes, churches and pocketbooks to Katrina evacuees, the comments sound heartless. When people were in need, Houston and Harris County relief agencies did not screen applicants for their wage-earning potential before delivering medical care, shelter and counseling to the victims."
The paper also wondered how New Orleans might have responded had the tables been turned and 100,000 Texans had fled to the Crescent City in the aftermath of a massive natural disaster. "Would New Orleans leaders have rejected as pampering the generosity for which Houston received national acclaim? Would desperate storm victims have been screened for their employability before receiving subsidized hotel rooms and apartments? When the buses packed with exhausted survivors arrived, would they have been turned away into the night?"
Anyone who nodded in agreement with the council members' comments should pause to reflect on the Chronicle's comments.
Moreover, if New Orleans is going to turn away its poorest citizens now, how can we expect the rest of the nation to look kindly on our requests for more federal aid as we struggle to rebuild? What a shame it would be if the last piece of discarded debris that New Orleans put out on the curbside turned out to be our compassion.