Inside the Footprint, a local blog, has been documenting the struggle to save Charity Hospital and prevent the demolition of Lower Midcity for the past two years. As a closing note to the years of struggle, the blog has posted a series of profiles of some of the activists involved. Among those profiled (along with stunning photos) are Brad Ott, Jacques Morial, and several others. Below is an excerpt of one of the profiles, civil rights attorney Mary Howell.
Mary Howell, whose law office stands just a block outside the VA Footprint, was the chief figure who led to my involvement in the LSU/VA issue, drawing me into the broader effort several months after I began this blog.
Mary, who came to know the residents of the VA Footprint especially well after the storm, gave up a great deal of her time, effort, and more to stand up against the "bullying" that was so deeply interwoven into the push to destroy the VA Footprint neighborhood. She was also the prime mover on the effort to save the VA houses from demolition. Regardless of how the effort turned out due to other actors, it cannot be denied that 79 structures were ultimately relocated, avoiding total demolition and marking a sudden, major change in events in the hospitals saga. Mary was also a major presence at many of the VA neighborhood meetings, a relentless advocate for the residents being negatively affected by the project.
BV: What, originally, got you involved in the Charity Hospital/LSU/VA fight?
MH: I went to a neighborhood meeting, and I walked into that meeting. It was held in this sort of gutted out building in the neighborhood. And I looked around the room. And it was filled with predominantly African American, working people, but it was a really diverse group of people. Homeowners, people who struggled to come back, people who struggled to rebuild their homes, people who had formed a really deep community and fellowship - actually unlike anything that existed before the storm. The storm really brought this neighborhood together in a powerful, transformative way.
As I was listening to what was being said about what was getting ready to happen here...I realized they were all going to be annihilated. And that people just really didn't understand what was about to happen. The bulldozers were literally coming through. All these promises were being made about "what a nice process this is going to be" and "how fairly everyone was going to be treated" and I looked around. Many of the people in the room were older - there was a mix of people, including several newcomers - but I looked around at the longtimers who had been here and really struggled hard to come back. A number of them were tired, they were elderly. And I thought, "Oh my god." This is like the kiss of death. They're not just losing their homes, their losing their neighborhood, their community, their safety net, their network - everything.
I've often said, if I could have just sneaked out of there - and pretended that I hadn't seen this, hadn't realized what was happening here - it would have been a relief. Because I went down a major rabbit hole for about three years. I was rebuilding and trying to come back at the same time.
It was awful, what happened here. It was as ugly...a bullying kind of power maneuver...as I've ever seen. And it remains that way.
BV: What do you think of the current state of affairs of the LSU/VA project?
MH: Oh, it's ridiculous. It's terrible. I can count on my hands, my fingers, the number of deaths that I believe are a direct result of the closing of Charity Hospital. And the financial waste of all of this is extraordinary. It's mind-boggling, especially given this economy. But the callous disregard of people's need for quality healthcare and particularly in the mental health area...shutting down that third floor of Charity Hospital. We've had terrible misfortune, a number of deaths as a direct result of that.
The terrible thing about it is that many of the people advocating for this have been doing it under the guise of bringing better healthcare to this city. It's the idea that we'll burn down the village to save the village. They've completely destroyed a community, they've destroyed lives.
You know, the Hippocratic Oath...that first line: First, do no harm? Massive harm has been done here in the name of promoting good healthcare. And it's a lie. This has never been about healthcare and the needs of the community, about what's right or just. It's always been about greed, about money, about power.