Post-Katrina still Undercuts Special-Needs Housing

Vendetta Merrett had a choice to make as Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans. She could try to evacuate with family or with the staff of the residential program where she’d been staying.

Merrett chose Belle Reve, a housing program for those living with HIV or AIDS. It was a decision that probably helped her guarantee residence with the center now, a year and half later when housing remains in short supply for those with special needs.

With some hurricane damage remaining and their donor base still dispersed, shelter operators are running short of money to restore beds and open new ones.

“I have 14 referrals of people who want to move in and there’s no housing,” said Abbey Gleichenhaus, director of client services at Belle Reve, who along with Lazarus House, Home Again, and Shelter Plus Care, provides transitional or permanent housing for those who are HIV symptomatic or have an AIDS diagnosis.

Finding trained staff is another issue, said Michele D’Aquin, Belle Reve’s program coordinator. The center has struggled to replace the certified nursing assistants who decided not to return to New Orleans after evacuating.

Fund-raising has also become a problem, the officials say, because many of their former donors have also left the area.

“Our annual fundraiser, which is an auction that is usually held in October or November, didn’t happen after Hurricane Katrina,” D’Aquin said. “That’s a big fundraiser for us. We rely on that to raise additional money to fill in the gap.”

Located in the Bywater area of New Orleans, Belle Reve has been operating for 14 years. The organization monitors the medication of residents, provides mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and transportation to appointments and community recreation.

Some residents are at Belle Reve because their families can’t deal with the added responsibility of taking care of them while dealing with the aftermath of the hurricane, Gleichenhaus said.

“It’s hard when you have somebody that’s on these different types of medications ….. making sure that they’re getting their medications, to making sure that if they’re diabetic, they’re eating right,” Gleichenhaus said. “We made attempts to have [residents] evacuate with their families” but most of their families could not take care of them.

Merrett and her husband, Kevin, were two of eight residents who went with Belle Reve, though Merrett says she initially had a hard time believing they would actually have to evacuate.

“I said, ‘Boy, we ain’t having no hurricane,'” she says now. “I didn’t want to leave.”

But it was Kevin who kept pushing, telling her how serious the threat was, she said.

Those who traveled with Belle Reve, settled in Anniston, Ala., at a Health Services Center, which was one of three HIV organizations that responded to an emailed request for shelter from Vicki Weeks, Belle Reve’s executive director.

“They had two, two-bedroom apartments that I could put two residents in each bedroom and had exactly enough for the eight residents,” Weeks said. “The HIV clinic and doctors were right next door.”

The staff took along medical records, which made it possible for clients to continue their medications without interruption, said Michele D’Aquin, program coordinator.

“We took all the files on each resident with us when we evacuated,” she said. “The social worker had all that information, and the personal care attendant supervisor had all their medication information.”

Before the hurricane, Belle Reve along with its sister residence next door-Belle Esprit-housed 12 people. After the storm damaged Belle Esprit, there was only room for eight residents.

Belle Reve reopened in June, after repairing water damage and other problems. Staff slept on the couches of friends as they oversaw the repairs, Gleichenhaus said, who remembers the sense of urgency staff members felt to get the facility back up and running.

The phones were still working, D’Aquin recalled, and staff would have to answer calls from former residents or potentially new ones looking for housing.

Brandi Hollins, 21, had been without her medication for more than a year after Katrina hit. “When my clinic that I’m going to opened back up [in September] that’s when I started getting my medicine,” said Hollins. In February she became a Belle Reve resident.

Merrett, 46, found her way back to Belle Reve after traveling to Alabama, then going on to Georgia. While she and Kevin where with Belle Reve she became so ill that doctors recommended she go live with family in Georgia, she said.

It was while she was there recovering, however, that Kevin died of AIDS related causes.

She’s glad to be back in the place that she and her husband had made into a home.

Meanwhile, Belle Reve has put together grants from foundations such as MAC AIDS, FORD, Elton John, and HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS) to keep operating and to renovate Belle Esprit. It is also hoping to purchase a nearby 5,000-square foot garage to expand.

“When we’re finished, I think we’ll be able to serve 32 people,” D’Aquin said.

For more information on Belle Reve, please contact Abbey Gleichenhaus at (504) 942-2671.