Thursday, September 13, 2007

Panel Dissects Racism, Poverty & AIDS in Post-Katrina Forum

The legacy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast remains one of this country's most embarrassing failures more than two years after the storm made landfall. Large swaths of New Orleans remain uninhabitable. New Orleanians continue to suffer poverty, racism and overall bureaucratic neglect as they attempt to rebuilt their homes and their lives. Politicians continue to point fingers at each other for their collective failures before, during and after Katrina. Panelists discussed the impact of these realities last Thursday at the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York as it relates to the spread of AIDS in the Big Easy and the Big Apple. I covered the forum for both EDGE [see story below] and the Blade but I left the forum shocked and angry. How could the United States fail an entire region? The panelists arguably answered that question loud and clear as they laid out possible solutions to this decades-long neglect of one of the country's most culturally rich regions.

Before August 2005, Jimmy Chase, like others in New Orleans, went to his job every day, in his case as a New Orleans AIDS Task Force peer support specialist. Then came Hurricane Katrina, and, like everyone else in the Big Easy, his life became much more complicated. But Chase’s attempts to return to normal in the wake of America’s greatest natural disaster was made even more difficult by the fact that he was living with AIDS.

Chase evacuated his apartment on the city’s West Bank just before Katrina barreled down upon the city in 2005. He returned to New Orleans nearly six months later. Chase has since moved into his own home and remains an outreach worker.

But he quickly points out he remains more lucky than other New Orleans residents. "I went back because I have a job and I have a house," he said. "I was fortunate to go back."

Chase has also lived with AIDS since 2002. He shared his experiences at a panel in New York City. Chase was one of four panelists who participated in the "Lives at Stake--Poverty, Race and HIV-from New Orleans to New York" forum at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ offices in Chelsea. The conference coincided with the second anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. The panelists sought to examine the intersection of a disaster like Katrina, AIDS, and poverty, racism and homophobia.

Katrina only exacerbated many problems that already existed in New Orleans, Chase said. Only 20 percent of New Orleanians remain uninsured, but rents--where people can find housing at all--have increased 45 percent since the storm. The lack of an extensive public transportation system and other basic infrastructure are continuing to plague his clients at the AIDS Task Force.

"Katrina really affected minority communities," he said. "When the news says New Orleans is back, that’s just in the tourist area."

Louisiana was already suffering disproportionately from the AIDS epidemic. The state has the third-highest rate of new HIV and AIDS infections in the country. The number of cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases also ranks among the highest in the United States. Chase said his agency and others in New Orleans, meanwhile, are struggling to meet the needs of their clients because the federal government continues to slash their funding.

"We’re fighting an uphill battle on top of Katrina," he lamented. "The agencies are doing the work but their hands are tied because of the funding loss."

Break the Chains seeks to reform federal and state sentencing guidelines for drug-related offenses. Executive Director Deborah Peterson Smalls was more pointed in her assessment of the city’s problems. She believes lawmakers failed New Orleanians of color long before Katrina.

"What really happened is not because of a hurricane," she said. "We have to remember what happened there were levees breaking, the flooding of the city. The majority of disasters that affect our community are not natural but political."

Smalls further argued that what she described as the "racialization of poverty" continued to impact disproportionately people of color, not only in New Orleans, but also New York and other major metropolitan areas. "The ultimate goal of all racist policies is to produce premature death," Smalls argued. "These policies are designed to destroy us."

Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, knows something about what AIDS has done to low-income communities. She began researching the impact AIDS has had on New York’s historically black and Latino neighborhoods way back in 1986. She also accused bureaucratic neglect, racism and more recently gentrification of enhancing the epidemic’s impact among people of color.

"Sept. 11 and Katrina help us understand it," Fullilove said. "What happens in New Orleans happens to us; what happens in New York happens to them."

New York City Dept. of Health & Mental Hygiene HIV Prevention Specialist Chris Jacques sees post-Katrina gentrification in New Orleans as mirroring Brooklyn, Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. Over the last three decades, minorities in New York have been pushed aside for wealthier residents. The argument was buttressed by a just-released U.S. Census report that showed that, for the first time in decades, the influx of whites to New York City increased, as did the number of blacks leaving.

"Public health is personal," Jacques said. "The notion someone will come to save you is jive. It is accomplished through day-to-day and minute-to-minute decisions you make for yourselves and for your family." He advocated taking personal responsibility for health maintenance. But he hastened to add that community-based organizations, public health advocates and bureaucrats alike have a responsibility to advance the well-being of their various constituents.

"This business of organizing to maintain our communities is real," he said. "We need to organize and conduct our business in a way that tells people to put health on their agenda."

GMHC organized the forum after Chezia Carraway toured New Orleans’ lower Ninth Ward in May during the HIV Prevention Leadership Summit. The Women’s Institute associate director for HIV Prevention & Community Development told EDGE that her visit to the devastated neighborhood evoked memories of Sept. 11. The tour also brought home how much poverty contributes to the spread of AIDS. "It’s not enough to stop HIV and AIDS but to rebuild communities," she said.

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