NEW ORLEANS: Low-income residents fight to ‘come home’

Hurricane Katrina evicted elderly and low-income residents from their homes and tossed families into temporary housing across the country. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including what some have called an 18-month-and-counting policy of racist neglect, working-class families organized and are pressuring local, state and federal governments to allow them to return to their homes.

On King Day, Jan. 15, hundreds of displaced families massed at a cordoned-off apartment complex, one of five public housing complexes operated by the city Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, demanding that the structure be restored and that they be able to retrieve personal property from their apartments.

HUD went to court to prohibit similar actions.

“I didn’t know it was a crime to go back to my apartment,” said Stephanie Mingo, a former resident of the St. Bernard complex. Mingo is one of scores of former residents who have worked on the cleanup of the area but have been barred from re-entering their apartments.

At a court hearing on Jan. 22, residents challenged HUD’s plans to demolish all public housing in the city. They also sought access to their apartments.

HUD argued that the buildings are unsafe and said it plans to replace public housing apartments with single-family homes. U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle took the matter under advisement.

Since Katrina struck in 2005, only 40 percent, or 200,000 New Orleanians, have been able to go home.

Patricia Jones, an advocate for residents in the city’s Lower 9th Ward, demanded the federal government step up to the plate. “We are spending a lot of money away from home that probably should be reallocated not only to New Orleans but other parts of the region, for other needs in the country,” she told reporters. “You can’t justify that kind of spending [in Iraq].”

ARLINGTON, Va.: Caseworkers for wounded laid off

The estimated 20,000 U.S. wounded military personnel returning from Iraq is one of the most under-reported stories of the nearly four-year-old war. Now the Department of Defense has laid off many of the caseworkers who helped them.

Workers for the Arlington-headquartered Military Severely Injured Center connect wounded veterans to benefits, financial resources and continuing medical care, and which helps them reintegrate into civilian life. Caseworkers were laid off as of Jan. 17 at Fort Hood, Texas, Fort Lewis, Wash., and Fort Campbell, Ky.

“They did a fabulous job for these families,” said Janice Buckley of the Washington state chapter of Operation Homefront, a civilian watchdog group that monitors veterans’ hospitals and assists their families. “The kind of work they do for these families who are hanging by a thread … no other organization helped service members and their families like they did.”

The DoD has declined to comment. Laid off workers reported that, as they cleaned out their desks, they were told that the center’s work duplicated efforts by the Army’s Wounded Warrior program.

PITTSBURGH: ‘Save public transit!’

For the fifth time since 2000, thousands of workers, elderly and disabled residents jammed hearings last week held by the Port Authority (PAT), the region’s public transportation system and 15th largest system in the country, protesting route cuts, fare increases and layoffs.

To meet an $80 million deficit, PAT recently proposed cutting 124 of the 213 bus routes, raising fares to $2 or $2.50 from the current $1.75 and laying off 400 workers.

Clarence Luff, a grocery worker, joined with airport workers, hospitality workers and bank workers in charging that slashing the routes would cut them off from their jobs.

For six years, neighborhood, labor and community coalitions have been lobbying the Pennsylvania Legislature to allocate sufficient funding for public transit. The Legislature had been too busy debating flag burning and passing pay hikes for themselves to hear taxpayers’ voices. In November, voters ended the long Republican domination of the state House and re-elected a Democratic governor. Activists see a glimmer of hope to stabilize the state’s public transit system. However, the crisis is now.

The proposed changes would force Marlene Ohnmeiss, who had a liver transplant, to walk three and a half miles to catch an alternative to her current bus. “I want to function in public,” she said.

Six more hearings are scheduled across the region through Feb. 7.

National Clips are compiled by Denise Winebrenner Edwards (dwinebr696 @ aol.com).

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