Meaning of Home Sunday, May 26 2013 

I miss New Orleans soooooooooo much. It literally hurts to miss it this much.


miss new orleans

In my Homelessness in Canadian Society class that I taught at Ryerson University for several years, we played a “game” called the “Meaning of Home”. It was an interactive activity designed to get students thinking about the most important factors in defining home and what the loss of these factors (in the process of becoming homeless) might be like.

Having moved around so much in the past few years, and living in a bit of a tenuous housing situation now, I am starting to understand it in such a different way myself. June 2010-February 2012 I lived in Arabi, St. Bernard Parish (I arrived at the end of April but was staying with my students for the month of May). March 2012 to (technically) mid March 2013 I lived in Abita Springs, St.Tammany Parish. But, I spent a month (end of August to end of September) in a hotel in Metairie, and most of October 27 to March 17th in New Jersey in shelters, tents and hotels.

Moving back to Canada, I didn’t know where I would be staying. I planned to couch surf; crashing at my parents or friends until I found something more permanent. I lucked into a great condo for the summer through my PhD supervisor’s connections. It’s very much lacking in furniture but it has (now, thanks to the donations of friends) the basic amenities.

So I have a house (in a sense) but do I have a home? When I was in Louisiana, home usually meant Toronto. When I was in New Jersey I always had to clarify because “back home” could mean Toronto or Louisiana depending upon the topic of conversation. Now that I’m in Toronto, I miss my home/friends/networks/communities in Louisiana. A friend told me today that it was time for me to come back home to New Orleans, and a big part of me agreed with her.

There is also a part of me that I suspect revels in the rootlessness; I know that if I was in Louisiana last week, chances are I’d be in Oklahoma or Texas now helping with recovery efforts in those states. I miss the ability to pick up and go help people, especially because I get so fulfilled from doing that work. In Toronto I feel more stability, in NOLA I felt the freedom of the casual culture.

Of course, there are anchors here in Toronto. I’m dating two amazing guys who I’m very fond of and our connections grow stronger with each date; that couldn’t be maintained if I wasn’t here (at least not to the same degree). I have a fabulous job as Project Coordinator of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network. It’s temporary (til May 2014) but I’m sure there are ways to stay connected to their work after that. I’m back on campus at York University; I lectured twice last week, joined the Senate as a student senator for the Faculty of Environmental Studies, and am lecturing again this week. I’m closer to my family and friends, geographically anyways. I’ll get to go to PWAC@MagNet this year after missing it last year.

And yet, my soul is in New Orleans. There is something about that city that drew me in from the first day I set foot on the soil back in 2008. I miss it every day. There is an expression/picture that became really popular after Katrina that said “Roots Run Deep”. Indeed, in Floodlines, Jordan Flaherty explains that more people from New Orleans live their whole lives not just in the city (compared to other cities across the US) but in the same neighbourhood, often on the same block.

roots run deep

photo by Amanda Fotes

I don’t have those historical roots, but the graft took. I’ve grown into the city and into St. Bernard Parish. While I know I will visit, and hopefully soon, I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll ever be able to spend large chunks of time there again. So much of my heart is there though….


Part 2 – DR404-12 SWLAFLD Saturday, Mar 17 2012 

Second day with the Red Cross up in Carencro, Louisiana. For some great photos of the flooding (to the extent that pictures of a disaster can be called great) see here and here for an article  and videos about people still trapped in their homes.

We were getting ready this morning to go out to a couple homes to do casework when one of the Damage Assessment Teams called in to report a neighbourhood in need of clean-up kits. So we loaded the car and headed out. Sure enough, there was extensive flooding. The street was on a hill so those at the bottom had more flooding than those at the top. One house had four feet; most had two-three feet.

We met Miss V. first. She lives closer to the top of the street. Her lawn was covered in clothes. They belonged to her neighbours. Many of them. She was washing clothes and helping out in cleaning as much as she could. I mentioned this to my bf Joey and he said something like “That’s the way we do it in Louisiana.” I knew that, but at the same time it’s so great to see it in action.

We went door to door, talking to folks and handing out the cleaning kits. At the bottom of the street we came across Miss C. She had incurred four feet  of water in her house and showed us some pictures. When the flooding came she evacuated grabbing only her purse, her dogs, the clothes she had on and her car keys. When she got to the top of the street she realized she couldn’t go any further. All the exit roads were blocked with flooding so she spent the day there.

But she told us that she’s lucky; she has flood insurance, most of her neighbours don’t. Yet, as she told us her story, and pictures of her houses –she and her husband have already gutted it four feet up all around the first floor– her eyes welled up several times. But at one point, she said “If I had a choice, I would sell. I don’t want to go through this again” and started crying. Yet, she also admitted that it’s been less than a week and that her feelings may change.

Later that day most of the houses on that street were declared as having major damage so we were able to go back to start providing financial assistance. We only had time to do two houses and went to Miss C.’s house first.  Red Cross, when a disaster meets certain criteria, is able to provide disaster-related emergency assistance in certain areas; for this disaster that includes clothing/shoes, food/groceries, storage containers and bedding.

As I mentioned yesterday, 91% of Red Cross spending is for humanitarian services and programs. The amount of funding isn’t huge; it is, after all, intended to be emergency assistance. Red Cross is very cognizant that their funding, as an NGO, is from individuals; “donated by the American public” is a catch-phrase I heard yesterday and found myself using a couple times today.  What strikes me about important in terms of Red Cross funding is that it doesn’t require a ton of hoops on the client’s part. Once the damage has been assessed and Red Cross has determined its level of involvement, casework can be done in 45 minutes to an hour. At the end of that time clients are given a special credit card. While some people in this flood may get insurance money down the road – it is just that, down the road. People need help now and Red Cross is there to help today.

Miss C. and her husband were so grateful for the assistance we were able to provide. One question that we ask at the end is “Would you state that the Red Cross has been able to meet all of your disaster-related emergency needs?” Miss C said “oh yes, it’s more than I imagined we could get.” And started crying again. She gave us each a long hug as we left to head to the neighbours, saying “Thank you. thank you so much.”

Tomorrow we go back to the same street to provide assistance to a few of her neighbours. Can’t wait!!

From the Red Cross website: “The American Red Cross is where people mobilize to help their neighbors—across the street, across the country, and across the world—in emergencies. Each year, in communities large and small, victims of some 70,000 disasters turn to neighbors familiar and new—the more than half a million volunteers and 35,000 employees of the Red Cross.”

The Meaning of Stuff Thursday, Jan 19 2012 

I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff ever since I heard about the impact of Katrina. I remember when Evan Smith first started coming to my Homelessness in Canadian Society classes at Ryerson university and showed pictures of the curbs in front of houses filled with someone’s entire life. The “garbage years equivalency” right now is about 36…as in, in the 6+ years since the storm New Orleans has generated about 36 years of garbage. When everything in your home right down to the studs needs to be stripped, it’s hard not to create mounds of garbage.
Photo of garbage outside a man's house post-Katrina

Garbage outside home after gutting - Photo by Lia Lehrer

I’m reading a novel about Katrina called City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. While fictional, so far it seems to portray a very honest glimpse into two families evacuation stories. This passage struck me though, in the context of stuff:



“The hurricane was headed directly for New Orleans, and at the last minute, now, even people who had never before evacuated finally packed bags, threw blankets and bottled water in their car, or their neighbors’ car, or their brother’s, along with one or two toys for the kids, their medicines, their pets, all grabbed in an escalating urgency, along with last-minute things that struck them—either heirlooms (Oh, get the wedding album…take the wedding album…) or odd choices that crossed their field of vision at some final moment and were suddenly irradiated with meaning—that old lamp that had sat for decades on their mother’s nightstand, or a favorite picture from the wall—and started out of town, faintly dazed with a sense that this might in fact represent the end of everything they had ever worked for, or taken for granted, heading toward some undefined future.” (City of Refuge, page 95)

But I suppose what really has me thinking about stuff these days is the fire in the home of some people I know here. Bonnie, her husband George and her sister Connie had a fire on Saturday, January 14th. Much of the kitchen/bathroom on the ground floor and parts of the upstairs were destroyed. If you would like to help there is a paypal address to send donations: or you can log into the Facebook Page Bonnie & George New Orleans at

Image of burnt kitchen

Kitchen countertop

Hole in roof post fire

Hole in roof that firefighters made to get into second floor

My Katrina Anniversary Project Saturday, Aug 27 2011 

I’m heading to the East Coast on Monday or Tuesday to work with the American Red Cross response to Hurricane Irene. Not sure where I’ll be placed yet or any real details beyond the fact that I’ll be working as a Shelter Supervisor. Wish me luck…

Community, Schmunity: a look at New Orleans 2 years later Thursday, Aug 25 2011 

A reflection from Jessica Hambleton:

When I registered for the CINT912 course back in 2009, I had no idea that the adventure I was embarking on would profoundly change my life. I had visited Flanders Fields as a child and had visited Ground Zero a few years ago but as devastating as those situations were, neither of them inspired me quite like my experience in NOLA almost two and a half years ago.

Jessica and Joy at the 2009 Jazz Fest

Although the above two tragedies were in fact tragedies, there was a sharp difference between those two events and hurricane Katrina: they had the support of their government during the aftermath.  It was saddening to read and watch the devastation prior to arriving in NOLA but it was a whole other level of sad upon arriving.  The first home we came to was owned by a lovely woman named Rebecca who had everyone in tears as she was sharing her story and her joy at finally having her home insulated and started towards rebuilding.  What I began to notice was that even though the stories were emotional for all of us, the residents of New Orleans had this spunk about them that was undeniable.  It wasn’t until our second week of the trip that I realized what that spunk was: determination.  By the time the second week rolled around I was amazed at the sense of community that I was seeing all around.  Even though the city, state and federal government was continuing to let them down, the citizens of New Orleans didn’t let that stop them from reconstructing the city that they loved.  Now don’t get me wrong, they were definitely bitter, and understandably so, but their collaboration and progress they achieved was not only outstanding but also had the added bonus of a ‘screw you we don’t need you’ to all three levels of government.

Jessica digging a community garden in Mid-City

The way the members of the community had come together to change their city was unlike anything I had not only ever experienced but that I had even ever read about.  It was absolutely inspiring.  People who may not have ever talked to each other had Katrina not have hit the city, were now on committees, executive boards, part of community organizations together and changing what was happening in their city, and all without any government help.  It is a committment that was creating successful change. I can only hope that this inspiration can penetrate others’ visions and remind them that anything is possible, literally.

2 years later – Reflections from Chris Monday, Aug 22 2011 

In May 2009 my group was the initial group to go to New Orleans to help with the rebuild, and there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t think about our experience there. It’s been 2 years and I still can’t get it out of my mind. Do I want to get it out of my mind? NEVER!! But it’s also sad to think about New Orleans because the time spent there can never be duplicated. I think everyone whoever’s been there as a class can resonate with this feeling.

We were there to rebuild homes and that’s what we did. I can remember the first house we did, and we polished that off in a day, when it was supposed to take two. It was a lot of hard work, but it was also a lot of fun. We were rewarded with a lovely lunch (who remembers that carrot cake yum!!!) I can remember the demolition crew and us killing ourselves in the sweltering heat, but it was all worth it for that final moment when the shed came down.

Jeanette's first wall - 4 years after the storm. Shown (L-R) Jeanette, India, Lily, Chris, FM

The damage that we witnessed 4 years after Katrina was insane, I don’t think any of us believed it would still be that bad, and I think that was a motivating factor that kept us pushing, day in and day out. It still baffles me how a country such as the United States could abandon its own. The images that I witnessed on tv when the disaster was taking place, only hit me harder when visiting the same places that were destroyed.

Fong-Ming, Rojyan and Chris planting trees to aid in wetlands redevelopment.

I may not see or talk to anyone as much as I would like, other than randomly seeing Ahmed or Said downtown, but we’re still a family. Our second mom Tanya had it pretty rough, in those days there was no Pascal so she had to deal with all of us, and we stressed her out (you know what I’m referring to). But for her to put together this brilliant idea still amazes me. In many ways, the tragedy of Katrina brought together a group of people who may have never met before to accomplish so much.

New Orleans: A collection of photos Tuesday, Aug 16 2011 

I’ve been back to New Orleans now 3 times since my first trip down in 2009, with one more visit planned for the end of the month. I still can’t explain what it is about the city that gets under your skin and refuses to leave your head, but it has to be something about the character and personality of New Orleans, the spirit and resilience of its inhabitants. As a volunteer, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to meet people from all over the world who are just as baffled as me. How can this place seem so much like home? How can spending any amount of time here change your life so completely? In all honesty, if I could, I would pack up and move there for good.

I last spent months at a time living in the Lower Ninth Ward, but with every visit, no matter the length, I am still as completely captivated by the neighbourhood as I was the first time I stayed there. There is a quiet, eerie beauty. With every intersection, another empty lot. Around every corner, another house sitting abandoned. But the pace of change surprises me. A year after my first visit, a small community has popped up with more houses than empty lots at one intersection. Granted, the recovery is soon entering it’s 7th year, and with the anniversary of Katrina looming around the corner most residents of the city should be home. This isn’t the case, so I try to see every individual homecoming as a small victory. People haven’t given up trying to come home yet, and I can’t help but feel optimistic.


Claiborne Bridge

Spray paint and storm walls



Florida Ave.



Florida Projects

This is a series of photos taken since 2009, mostly in or around the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.
© Amanda Fotes 

Do You Know What It Means? Monday, Aug 15 2011 

A two year out reflection from Stephanie – one of the 2009 NOLA students.

post-installation - Stephanie cleaning

Stephanie Cleaning post-insulation installation. Her favourite job.

This is my attempt to fully articulate  the impact New Orleans has had on me. First of all, I’ll start by admitting that going to New Orleans was tough, but coming back was a lot tougher. Preparing for this trip took more courage than I ever imagined and I really had to step outside of my comfort zone in order to pursue this two week journey. I went back and forth debating whether or not I could actually go through with it until one day I bought a plane ticket and locked myself in… No regrets since that day.

I’ll begin by saying that I have extreme anxiety when it comes to flying and I’ll never forget my traumatizing experience flying home from NOLA. It was a small plane, a lot of turbulence, and we went through a thunder-storm.

Royjan, Stephanie and Jo land in Buffalo

Royjan, Stephanie and Jo land in Buffalo after an eventful plane ride

I cried a lot that day, but when I sat down and reflected on that experience, I felt selfish. How could I possibly feel traumatized traveling by something that is way safer than being in a car? How could these irrational feelings actually compare to the devastation, physical and emotional trauma the residents of New Orleans almost 6 years ago? How could anything I’ve ever been through compare to the pain and suffering thousands of people endured at this time?

So what do you say to someone you meet in New Orleans?
You listen.
You listen to the individual experiences people have prior to Katrina, during Katrina and their ongoing struggle to maintain the bright spirits that they have today.
You listen to the stories of strength, hope as well as what it takes to truly survive something so catastrophic.
You listen to how they were able to overcome obstacles that many of us will never have to experience in our lifetime.

You might even wonder how they can possibly be the most optimistic people you will ever meet.

Prior to leaving for New Orleans, I remember looking at as much footage as possible in order to prepare myself for what was to come.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. I remember thinking that after 4 years, every single house should have been inspected and at least well on their way to repair. There was an overwhelming amount of houses that had not been searched, or had been searched, but abandoned. One of the most intense moments for me personally was to see a yellow sided house that read, “Lisa + Donnie R OK” in person. This is an image that came up in several types of media and at this moment, I was actually standing in front of the house. It was so surreal.

One of the first days that our group was in New Orleans, we were touring around, taking in the scenery and I can’t even count how many people offered to grill us something on the barbecue or drive us where we needed to go. On our first day of work, we met a lovely lady that was rebuilding her house.

Prepping for insulation work...L to R: Ahmed, Chris, Stephanie, Tanya, Kealey and AmeriCorps guy

She was STILL living in a FEMA trailer and while we were putting up insulation in her house, she made us nine different Louisiana dishes (from her trailer). We definitely did not ask  her to do this for us, but we were grateful that she did. I know that it exposed me to many dishes that I might not have been able to experience and it allowed me to fully understand what Southern hospitality was…first hand!

Miss Rebecca's meal for the students

MIss Rebecca's meal...

Over the course of two weeks, I met so many people who were willing to share their stories with me and I brought them home to my family and friends. For the first two months after coming home, all I did was talk about New Orleans. Over 2 years has gone by and it’s still a regular topic of conversation.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
I do.

Sign on the wall of St Charles Guesthouse

Love2NOLA Friday, Aug 12 2011 

I’m launching a new blog Love2NOLA. This blog will feature updates about the more touristy side of New Orlean: food, hotels, tourist events, attractions, music etc. There are a few posts up already with many more coming soon. Today’s post is about a great NOLA-based musician Mark Growden.



Check out the blog and subscribe!


RIP Wendy Babcock Wednesday, Aug 10 2011 

This is another NOLA to Toronto post. While I don’t always miss TO, there is nowhere I would rather be at this moment. My friend, Wendy Babcock, was found dead at her home yesterday; an apparent suicide. Wendy’s loss hurts; all death does but this is the second suicide in my circle in the past 13 months. My ex-wife Tricia killed herself last July. Suicide, post-Katrina is New Orleans; most people I have met know one or more people who have taken their own life.

In November 2009, CBC profiled Wendy on the show Connect With Mark Kelley. View the video here.

Wendy had, by all accounts, a horrible childhood. She was abused by her parents, lived in a group home, became a ward of Children’s Aid Society, aged out of care, dropped out of high school, became a child sex trade worker (her client list included a very well-known current Toronto politician, lawyers, doctors, police officers etc). She had a child as a teen who was taken away and whom she never stopped fighting for. Her friend and roommate Lien Pham was murdered in October 2003.

She also had an incredible life. She became an activist for the rights of sex workers. She won the first Public Health Champion award from the City of Toronto in 2008 for her activist worker including “co-initiating a partnership with the Toronto Police Services to ensure that sex workers can report incidents of assault without fear of persecution or prosecution, and being a member of the advisory group to the Special Victims Unit.”

She earned a diploma from George Brown College’s program for counselling and advocacy for assaulted women and children. She worked at Street Health for a number of years as a harm reduction worker. She helped found numerous groups including the Bad Date Coalition, the Safer Stroll Project, Sherbourne Health Bus Sex Workers Stop, Regent Park Community Health Centre’s Sex Worker Drop In, and self defense training for sex workers.

Despite dropping out of high school at 16, in the fall of 2009 she started law school at Osgoode Hall, York University. Osgoode’s building, and the building the Faculty of Environmental Studies is in, are right next door to each other. We often saw each other on campus during her first year. She would sometimes catch a ride downtown with me after school so that I could take advantage of the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes and she could save herself a long bus ride.

In November 2009, her friends threw her a fundraising party at Goodhandy’s. I emceed the event which brought together a host of sex positive performances to help cover the $18,000 she needed for school. The party didn’t raise that much, but it did a great job at raising Wendy’s spirits and publicizing her story.

I heard from Wendy recently, as did many others in our mutual circle. I was shocked to hear the news of her passing last night. I spent a lot of time crying last night and today, thinking about her. She really was a bright light in the world. Someone who fought back against all the crap that was thrown her way and who seemed to be making progress against her demons.  I want to talk more about anxiety, depression and suicide – especially the way it manifests in New Orleans – but today I just want to honour Wendy. I am grateful to have known her for the past 6 years or so.

RIP Wendy Babcock – you are  loved and already missed. xoxo

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