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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Impromptu parade and a hint of housing raise hopes

– On Sunday the first thing I heard from Dome residents was that they didn't know where the prayer service and the mass were being held. So I took off to find them, and this took a while. Along the way I met a man in his early thirties and his wife, both walking across a huge parking lot toward the Dome. They were especially frustrated because they said they had spent seven hours the day before in the housing office located adjacent to the Dome in another huge building, only to be told at the end of the day to come back the following morning. This morning they were told that the office wouldn't be open after all and to come back on Monday.

This man was fit to be tied, and he talked and talked about how disgusted he was that so much money was supposed to be available, yet it seems impossible to get help, while corporations housed in New York and elsewhere are getting the contracts to rebuild New Orleans. He said he had owned a hair salon in New Orleans, and his wife had worked in casinos. They are desperate to find housing so that they can have a base from which to look for jobs and start a new life. They are willing to settle in Houston or another city, but they do not want to live in a broken-down area of Houston (something I've heard from a lot of people). Tidily and smartly dressed, he made a point of telling me that it was important to him and his self-esteem to have clean clothes next to his skin, that he had worn dirty clothes long enough. I think he was worried that I wouldn't think he was truly in need because he was dressed well. We exchanged phone numbers and parted ways.

I did locate the Catholic mass; it was held in a huge hall near the medical center. But the priests outnumbered the penitents. The hall was empty save for three or four people, including one elderly white man who said he'd had two nervous breakdowns and was about to have another; I believed him. He needed to talk and wouldn't or couldn't stop. Of the many things he told me, the one that struck me the most was his fear that he'd be moved out of the Dome. He wanted to stay there until New Orleans is rebuilt rather than move to temporary housing or another shelter. He was very adamant about this, and I realized that some people have developed a routine of normalcy in this situation and that more change seems almost intolerable to them.

Today I did a stint in food services; my respect for food service workers has grown a hundred-fold! I must have served three hundred pieces of fried chicken, a Southern delicacy of course and, until today, a favorite of mine. I don't think I can ever eat another bite of fried chicken, having dished out so many enormous fried chicken breasts, so big they covered the whole paper plate and bent it double. I wish the food were healthier here, although I must say that the residents appreciated this fried chicken more than the cold sandwiches that are standard fare. There were also pints of Dreyers ice cream, and these went fast. Our service area catered first to elderly and disabled people and then was opened to whoever came. My co-workers included a 5th-grade teacher from Waco who had driven with her husband in their camper to volunteer, and who brought hand-made cards from her students that she gave each child with their meals.

Food services for lunch lasted until almost three o'clock, at which time I escaped out of the Dome for some sunshine. To the delight of everybody around, definitely including me, a New Orleans-style parade was in progress around the Dome, with musicians dancing and playing a tuba and trumpet and drums. I don't know where it came from; it seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Some Dome residents joined in the marching and dancing, and that was the happiest I've seen folks since I've been here. It is amazing what music and movement can do for the soul. An hour or so later I came upon some drummers giving a little impromptu concert for twenty or so folks circled tightly around them. They were Rasta-men, and again, the music cheered everyone. I saw a man with a professional camera zooming in on the lead drummer and a little child who stood entranced. When the song finished, the camera-man yelled, "Watch for this on Fox News!"

I've been thinking a lot about the visuals from the Dome that are being broadcast on the networks and printed in the newspapers. Media people who come to the shelters get special escorts and are directed toward individuals with "interesting" (read "suitable") stories. A Bay Area radio station was here today ... their story will be less conventional given that a maverick California Red Crosser sneaked them in and gave them his version of the low-down. I like to take my computer and my camera everywhere with me, but I had decided not to bring a camera to this situation, and I'm glad I didn't. (In any case, Red Cross workers are not allowed to take photos, I learned today.) This afternoon I saw one professional photographer take a bead on an elderly African American man who was sleeping on his cot, his hand draped protectively across a young child, also asleep next to him. Photographing people in the Dome is like photographing people in their homes. People here have no privacy, and it is just simply unethical to snap pictures without people's knowledge.

Let me end with something more uplifting. I went to a staff meeting at the end of the day at which a housing specialist talked about a "housing options" program that will begin tomorrow. Dome residents will be able to choose (with an emphasis on "choose") the kind of temporary housing they want, and this will include local options of various kinds as well as housing in other states. The goal is to move everybody out of the Dome and the Reliance Center (an adjacent building) by the end of next week. This will confirm the suspicions of the older white man on the verge of a breakdown in the empty church service, but it will be welcome news, if it's true, to many Dome residents. There are now a few thousand people left in the complex, way down from 30,000. Red Cross workers are supposed to persuade folks to go over to the housing office tomorrow. Well, I'm skeptical, but I remembered the phone numbers I'd gotten from the couple I met this morning on my way to find the mass, and I telephoned them. They'd given me three cell numbers, and the last one worked. I told them what I had learned at the meeting, plus some tips I've picked up on how to be successful in these encounters. I hope I didn't give them false hope. The young man told me I'd made a lifelong friend, which humbled me. Such gratitude shouldn't be necessary for such simple relays of information, and people shouldn't be put in the situation of feeling extraordinarily dependent and therefore extraordinarily grateful.

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