Eleven-year-old Ronald has just finished the fourth grade at his New Orleans elementary school. During the school year he was enrolled in an after-school Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® program, which seeks to help children fall in love with reading, increase their self-esteem, and develop more positive attitudes toward learning. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, CDF’s Southern Regional Office established a number of CDF Freedom Schools sites in the Gulf region paying particular attention to serving the special needs of storm survivors. When Ronald first began attending our CDF Freedom Schools after-school program, he often caused disruptions by acting out or starting fights with other students. But the staff recognized that his behavior could be a sign of other things going on in his life, and instead of turning him away, they put together one-on-one activity time and listening sessions with Ronald. His behavior started to improve and he began to trust and open up to the attentive staff.
When the school year ended, Ronald enrolled in a CDF Freedom Schools summer reading enrichment program. A few weeks ago, he confided to a staff member that he doesn’t feel loved and has thoughts of dying and suicide. Ronald currently lives with his father and his girlfriend and her children. His mother lives in New York with a younger sibling. Ronald’s father, a construction worker whose jobs require him to work long hours, hasn’t been able to provide a stable home for Ronald. They moved at least twice during the last school year, each time, moving in with a different family.
The family’s instability has been hard on Ronald. His home life is just one example of the hidden homelessness problem in New Orleans four years after Hurricane Katrina and the mental health toll that plagues so many children and adults. Four major housing developments in New Orleans were demolished after the storm, and it is estimated that over 250,000 housing units remain unfit for human habitation. The rebuilding of demolished public housing units lags far behind the demand for affordable housing. Before Katrina, it was possible to find a rental dwelling for $375.00 a month. Today, it is not uncommon to find rents for comparable property costing $1,200 a month. An estimated 12,000 people are considered homeless and sleep either in shelters or on the street at night. Many others—like Ronald and his father—simply don’t have a permanent place to live and end up falling through the cracks.
Ronald has no health insurance and locating a mental health resource to help with his extreme stress has been difficult. Once the CDF Freedom Schools staff learned about his suicidal thoughts, they immediately began providing crisis counseling through their early education staff and working to find mental health services that would accept an uninsured child. Although they finally succeeded in finding a place that could help, the hospital facility where the mental health services are located is scheduled to close after the governor used a line-item budget veto to cancel funding for the 35-bed children’s hospital and adult crisis care center. If Ronald needs to be hospitalized, he will have to go to a facility 40 miles away from his father.
Unfortunately, Ronald is not alone. Before Katrina, New Orleans already had one of the highest rates of uninsured people in the nation, and there is an overwhelming need for holistic health care in the hurricane-damaged communities where hospitals and clinics remain closed. The problem is especially severe for the city’s Black citizens, 72 percent of whom said in a recent study they have reduced access to health care since the storm. Meanwhile, unrelenting stress, unstable living conditions, and uncertainty about the future have left many children and adults still traumatized by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 25 to 30 percent of residents in the affected areas are in need of mental health services, which remain limited. With cuts like the one resulting in the closure of the state children’s mental hospital, unmet mental health problems will only get worse. Right now the largest provider of psychiatric care in New Orleans is the 60 acute care beds at the Orleans Parish Prison.
Ronald’s story is just one example of the unjust lottery of geography in our nation’s current child health and mental health care non-system. The instability Ronald faces growing up in post-Katrina New Orleans shouldn’t be compounded by an inability to access the critical help he needs. And Katrina’s children all across the land should not have to navigate 50 different state health eligibility rules. All children need comprehensive health and mental health benefits and must be able to get those services wherever they live. Congress and the President can act now to provide them that care through an affordable national health care safety net. It’s fortunate that the CDF Freedom Schools staff working with Ronald was able to discern his problems and help a child in crisis. But how many other children in New Orleans and across our country face similar traumatic circumstances in their communities and are in harm’s way because they fell through the cracks in our broken health care system?