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TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Searching For Life In Dead Buildings

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With the New Orleans skyline visible in the distance, Shamus Rohn searches an abandoned hospital for squatters. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

NEW ORLEANS--A tangle of wire resembling giant, black spider legs dangled from a ceiling and stretched across a floor covered in shattered glass and broken tiles. An exit sign lay in the rubble.

“Outreach--anybody here?” Shamus Rohn shouted. “Hello? Anybody here?”

No answer. The only sound was the glass crunching under our feet as we walked through a dark hallway and up the stairs, guided by Rohn's flashlight. The light bounced across endless piles of refuse, stopping occasionally on objects that hinted at the gutted building’s past: A rusted wheelchair, adjustable metal bed frames, boxes upon boxes of latex gloves. Lunch menus were spread across two rooms.

Before Hurricane Katrina, this was a busy hospital. Now, Rohn has good reason to believe, it’s home to at a least a handful of people.

He pointed to the beer bottles standing upright in the halls and behind the doors. That's someone's cheap security system -- if a bottle falls, the sound will alert whomever is in the building.

Rohn and his partner Mike Miller might be the only two people in the country whose full-time job entails searching abandoned structures for signs of life, said Martha Kegel, director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, the nonprofit that employs them. After recognizing that a new generation of the city’s homeless were ending up as squatters in these neglected spaces, the two men launched their search-and-rescue effort full-time earlier this year.

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Shamus Rohn makes the rounds at night. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“It’s very dangerous work,” Kegel said. “It gives me nightmares thinking what could happen to them. But as long as they keep telling me about the elderly and disabled people they are finding, I can’t stop them from doing it.”

The recession, she added, has only made their job more difficult and more critical. As the homeless population grows in a city that has not yet replenished its affordable housing, nonprofits such as UNITY face funding shortfalls. That means no money to hire additional outreach workers when the need for them only promises to grow.

“We feel we are in a crisis we have never seen before,” Kegel said.

She said many of the “squatters” the team has found are working full-time, but have been unable to re-enter New Orleans’ housing system, which was left with bloated rental prices after the storm. Others are unable to work. In one search, eight elderly men were discovered living together in a building with no water or electricity. The oldest was 90. Another time, they found a man who was made briefly famous after the storm because he had remained behind and kept a meticulous diary on a wall in his public housing apartment. Historians cut out a piece of the wall to preserve it, but no one thought to save the author of that chronicle of Katrina. When Rohn and Miller found Tommie Mabry in an otherwise abandoned two-story structure, the walls were covered in writing that had grown erratic, indicating his mental state had deteriorated.

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Not only abandoned buildings are used for home. Earnest Ranker, 60, lives in a deserted RV. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“You meet people who say, 'I’ve been in this building two years waiting for someone to come,'” said Rohn, 28, who has turned down positions in law school two years in a row to continue the effort. “We hear things like ‘Oh my God, you’re the angels we’ve been waiting for.’ When you hear things like that, you realize how much people are hurting and suffering and disengaged from the general community.”

“There’s no way to get to them,” he added, “unless you go find them.”

And so, Michael and I did. We spent a day with Rohn, from morning until midnight, climbing under fences and walking over and under debris.

At the hospital, we found a space one man had carved out on the top floor, creating a small oasis of order amid the building’s chaos. His bed sat on top of a rug and his clothes, all neatly folded, lined shelves. On a nightstand: A bottle of cologne, a pen holder and a book by Oscar Wilde.

On a wall covered with decorations, as if they might distract a visitor from the peeling, moldy wallpaper, he had pinned a lottery ticket. It was for that day and listed the jackpot at $30,000,000. He had picked numbers 5, 15, 17, 44, 51 and 07.

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The home of a man in the former Lindy Boggs Medical Center in Mid-City. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

In the room next door, a box held the keys to all the hospital's locks, including one labeled "director's desk." Two decorations hung on the wall: A poster for a job fair on June 27, and a newspaper clipping about the abandoned hospital, The Lindy Boggs Medical Center. Around the clipping someone had written three words: "Home Sweet Home."

“Part of what we’re trying to figure out is how people pick where they stay,” Rohn said.

Earlier we had searched a City Hall annex – a building that had been used by the Code Enforcement Bureau and Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development, according to paperwork left behind. Doors with numbers still bore signs such as “Walk, don’t run,” and “To request a recycling bin, please call.”

At one time, there were 27 mattresses here. That at least one person was still living here was confirmed by a newspaper left open to the classified ads. The date was current – July 2, 2009.

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Shamus Rohn finds a current newspaper opened to the classified ads. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

In one room, a pair of black dress shoes rested not far from a pay stub for a job as a waiter. It listed an hourly rate of $2.50. A note nearby read, “Mr. Bryan, Can you cut me little of my check…getting on last paycheck…settle with half of my paycheck now…I need some money.” It was signed, "Wade."

In another room with a queen-sized mattress, a bowl of dog food rested on the floor. On a cork bulletin board hung a plastic rosary and an American flag. Scribbled on a small piece of notebook paper, this poem:

Hide your eyes from
the poor
Like a monster in
a closet you know
is there
Take the time to
look under the
bed and see what’s
there
Why would you fear me
in your metal box, safe
from all the world.

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Shamus Rohn and Clarence White knock on the door of a house where squatters seem to have made a home. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

After we left the public buildings, finding no one home, we searched houses.

With little effort, we arrived at one with no interior walls and only one working electrical outlet. A man nicknamed YoYo invited us in. He does construction work and came from Dallas to New Orleans hoping to find work in the rebuilding effort. He said some weeks he finds steady employment, but he can go three weeks without a job. His employer owns the gutted house and lets him stay there free of rent.

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James Torres, a construction worker who is nicknamed YoYo, watches television in a gutted house his employer owns. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“It’s a roof over my head," said YoYo, whose real name is James Torres. "At least I’m not over there on the corner or under a bridge. This is a blessing.”

He said he has learned where to place buckets when it rains and how much water he has to microwave to take a hot shower.

“I'm strong," said Torres, 49. "I don’t get discouraged because I live like this, because it could be a lot worse."

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James Torres is hoping to sell a litter of pitbulls to make extra money. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The night was almost over and we were done searching buildings when we saw Tommie Mabry, the man who scrawls on the walls, walking down the street. He wore two different shoes and was using an umbrella as a cane. Rohn pulled over and offered him a ride.

“Shamus, I am so glad you seen me,” Mabry said.

Before the storm, an elderly woman looked after Mabry, but after the storm, he was left alone. He ended up in the abandoned building after the public housing unit where he lived was closed. There was no electricity, no running water – “It was a primitive way of life,” he said. Then Rohn came through the window one day and offered to help him find housing.

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Tommie Mabry kept a diary on his apartment wall following Hurricane Katrina. Parts of it were saved, but he ended up in an abandoned building. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“I was hoping to get out of there, I just didn’t know how,” said Mabry, 54. “I was at a stage in life where it seemed like I had fallen to the bottom end and things seemed to be getting worse. I’m glad someone got me out of there.”

When we dropped him off at his apartment, he again thanked Rohn.

“Shamus, I’m really glad you seen me tonight,” he said, grinning. “Really glad.”

After he walked away, Clarence White, another UNITY worker, asked Rohn, "How's his apartment looking?"

“Pretty good,” he said. “But he’s writing on the walls again.”

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Tommie Mabry clutches the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that Shamus Rohn gave him. Mabry asked for several so he'd have a better chance at finding one with M&Ms. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  July 15, 2009; 10:58 AM ET
Categories:  Into the Wild  
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