But after Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 23, 2005, and the levees broke, Marshall and more than 1,000 families were forced to abandon Calliope as floodwaters reached 6 feet deep. They first went to the Superdome, then boarded buses to cities like Houston and Denver. Marshall, his girlfriend, and their son wound up in Houston. There he found carpentry work and moved into an apartment complex where other Calliope residents lived. Most of them wanted to return home, Marshall says, and pressed the city's housing authority to reopen Calliope.
In August 2007, the city reopened a small number of apartments for returning residents. So Marshall packed up his van and drove back to New Orleans. He says he felt certain he could find work rebuilding his hometown.
But it wasn't so easy. For one, federal subcontractors had an army of undocumented immigrants willing to do the hard work of cleaning gutters and filthy streets for low pay. Second, Marshall and many of his neighbors had criminal records, which contractors initially told them was the reason they wouldn't hire them. (Marshall had served prison time for burglary.)
When a site foreman finally did offer Marshall a cleaning job, the pay was less than the local $8 prevailing wage. That's because President Bush had temporarily suspended the Davis-Bacon Act in the wake of Katrina, exempting federal contractors in New Orleans from paying prevailing wages. It also allowed them to hire undocumented immigrants without facing penalties.
Marshall and his neighbors were furious. And they directed their frustration at their new Latino neighbors.
"Our interactions were mean, like telling them they were taking jobs from us, they didn't belong here, they're illegals," Marshall says.
Although the Davis-Bacon Act was reinstated two months after Katrina hit, all contracts signed during that time remained exempt. Refusing to work for less than the prevailing wage, some of Marshall's friends turned to looting and other crimes. He got involved with drugs, then got arrested and landed in drug court. He was sentenced to two years of probation.
It was early 2011, and from his living-room window Marshall could see crews of Latino workers demolishing the last Calliope buildings. Only a few would remain standing. When those same crews began building mixed-income town houses across the street, Marshall walked over to the construction site every day to beg the foreman to give him work. Within two weeks, he was hired--still below the prevailing wage--to build frames for the town houses.
Marshall tried to get work for his neighbors as well, with little success. Then, with the help of STAND with Dignity, a nonprofit organization that represents low-wage, predominantly black workers, things changed. Marshall learned about a federal law that requires contractors who get money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to hire a certain percentage of low-income workers, giving preference to people who live in public housing. After several meetings with city housing authorities, the subcontractor he worked for was ordered to hire dozens of Calliope workers.