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Public housing advocates protest St. Bernard's closure
Marchers demand HUD reopen units
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
By Kate Moran

Dozens of displaced public housing residents, led by a young activist with drums affixed to the front of his bike, marched around the perimeter of the St. Bernard complex Tuesday to demand that the federal government help low-income residents return to their former neighborhoods.

The rally brought dislocated residents together with protesters from the Common Ground collective, most of them young, white and bedecked with piercings, shaggy facial hair and other trappings of counterculture. For the Fourth of July, they staged an event that blended biblical allusions with democratic traditions of civil disobedience.

Marchers circled the shuttered housing project, where a barbed wire fence prevents former residents from entering, in a protest they said was reminiscent of the biblical march around Jericho. As the Old Testament tells it, the Israelites orbited the ancient city for seven days before their shouts brought the walls tumbling down.

Tangelia Williams came from Houston for the day to let the federal government know she wants to go home to the St. Bernard complex, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to raze and redevelop along with the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper and Lafitte developments.

She has not been able to find work in Houston, where she says many employers look for bilingual job candidates, and without a steady income she is running out of options to support her teenage daughter and nephew. Moreover, she misses life in New Orleans.

That was the same message offered by Soloma Stevens, another longtime St. Bernard resident who evacuated to Houston but hopes to return home next month to a house her daughter is investigating on Broad Street. She says Houston police harass people who like to sit on their stoops and have been aggressive with New Orleans evacuees.

"It's like we're in prison there," she said.

The march around the shuttered housing project culminated with speeches from housing advocates who averred the right of all displaced New Orleanians to return home, whether they lived in public or private homes.

Lawyer and perennial housing advocate Bill Quigley urged protesters to join a class-action lawsuit that was recently filed in federal court on behalf of marooned residents.

"The right of return is guaranteed by international law, not just for people in public housing, but also for people in rental apartments and homes," Quigley said. "This is not about public housing or private housing. It is about public housing residents leading the way for 200,000 people who want to come home to New Orleans."

HUD has opened 1,100 public housing units since Hurricane Katrina and recently pledged to bring 1,000 more online by the end of the summer. HUD also increased the value of Section 8 rental vouchers to help low-income families find quality housing in a tight market.

HUD will now pay qualified landlords $964 for a one-bedroom home, $1,128 for two bedrooms and $1,447 for three bedrooms, up to a limit of $2,275 for a seven-bedroom house.

Though the primary aim of the Fourth of July protest was to bring back public housing residents, the Tuesday march also was an all-purpose demonstration replete with antiwar and anti-President Bush rhetoric from activists who have descended on New Orleans from around the country.

Alongside protesters with the locally based People's Hurricane Relief Fund were representatives from World Can't Wait, an antiwar group kicking off a cross-country "freedom ride," and from Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Diana Straydog, who called herself one of the last remaining American Indians in the city, waved flags donated by the nonprofit group Save Our Wetlands.

"This brings together housing issues with many side stories," she said. "This is an opportunity for many groups to come together and express their mutual support."

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Kate Moran can be reached at or (504) 883-7052.