NEW ORLEANS — The dark blue rescue van pulls up in front of a sad shell of a house, a few blocks from the police station and criminal court. It's turning into a cold January night.
Slipping on gloves, social workers Mike Miller and Katy Quigley head in.
"Homeless outreach! Anybody home?" Miller shouts as he climbs over a balcony and up a flight of stairs.
No one's home. But the signs of life are disturbing: A slept-on mattress, bits of food, smells of urine and feces.
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It's creepy: The upstairs apartment hasn't been touched since Hurricane Katrina. There's paperwork, letters, clothing, medicine bottles, a child's stuffed animal, a Star Wars X-Wing fighter plane on the carpeted stairs.
A business card they left on the fetid mattress during their last trip is gone. That's a good sign.
They move on.
At an abandoned 100-year-old factory, they find a few squatters. The factory has become a spot for day laborers working for temp services, restaurants, construction crews. The wages and tips, plus side tricks like collecting aluminum cans, aren't enough to get them into an apartment since rents skyrocketed after the storm.
In a former workers' locker room, James Bragg, a 35-year-old out-of-work carnival worker from Illinois, is buried under blankets with his girlfriend in the dark. His left eye doesn't blink; it's bruised and bloodshot from being hit with a pipe.
When the carnival season ended, he said, "We come down here with about $600." But he was robbed on Bourbon Street, and afterward they ate through savings living out of a hotel before they came across the factory in a downpour of rain a few months ago.
"It's better than sleeping on sidewalks," he says.
An ex-convict from New Orleans lives in the next room. He's arranged his living quarters like a prison cell — neat and tidy and cold. He's lined up hand sanitizer, hair lotion, a broken mirror to shave in, water jugs, stacked clothes — one stack for boxer shorts. A hole in the floor looks onto the ground floor, and he uses it as an outhouse.
Enter America's Queen City of Blight.
More than five years after Katrina, New Orleans is struggling to deal with about 43,000 blighted residential properties — in various states of neglect and collapse. The city has a larger percentage of blighted properties than any other U.S. city, about a quarter of its housing stock.
And in these wastelands, an estimated 3,000 homeless find refuge every night. They are people suffering from mental illness, disability or substance abuse, or simply down-on-their-luck working poor. They can be found sleeping in schools, rundown shotgun-style houses, warehouses, sprawling factories, and even funeral homes and hospitals.
Any vacant place works.
Unity of Greater New Orleans, a collaboration of 63 homeless agencies, has been running sweeps across the city every week for more than two years looking for "the sickest of sick puppies," as Miller puts it.
"Worked someone out of there, someone out of there," Miller says, pointing as he drives through Mid-City. "It is every neighborhood in New Orleans: people living in abandoned buildings. There's not one neighborhood where we haven't pulled someone out."
Decades of poverty, the trauma of Katrina, the economic downturn and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are a toxic socioeconomic cocktail that has made the reality of dire homelessness stubbornly vivid here. With about 11,000 homeless, New Orleans has the nation's highest number per capita, according to Unity.
"The homelessness here does seem very Third World, and that shouldn't be happening in America in 2011," said Martha J. Kegel, the executive director of Unity. "I am just horrified by the magnitude of the problem."