Homeless again in New Orleans

When FEMA cuts off their hotel subsidies Feb. 7, thousands of Katrina victims will be forced into the streets.


Michelle Goldberg
February 7, 2006 5:07PM (UTC)

Without having a lot of money, it's almost impossible to find a place to live in New Orleans. People who came here after Hurricane Katrina, seeking rebuilding jobs, figured they could rent apartments or cheap rooms. But there's little housing to be had in Crescent City, and what is available rents for double what it cost before.

With nowhere to go, dozens of people have taken up residence in New Orleans City Park, sleeping in tents or under jury-rigged blue tarps. A group of Apache Indians from Arizona has even set up a teepee. Seeking to impose some sort of order, the city contracted with an Alabama firm called Storm Force, which has corralled people into a few manageable fields and started charging $300 a month for muddy plots big enough for four or five tents, huddled close together. Showers are available for $5.

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Although famous restaurants are reopening in the French Quarter, and a trickle of tourists has returned, much of New Orleans remains apocalyptic. Streets are lined with empty, rotting houses, ugly yellow-brown stripes on the walls marking the floodwater line. A dead dog decomposes in a cage in the middle of a road in Gentilly, the devastated middle-class neighborhood that served as the setting for Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer." The trees and grass are brown and dead, killed by the flood's chemical stew.

Officials say New Orleans can't handle an influx of traumatized, homeless families, but that may be what it is about to get. Five months after Hurricane Katrina, many of the storm's victims are facing a second crisis. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is ending its hotel subsidy program despite the fact that thousands of Katrina victims have nowhere else to go. Thousands of evacuees will be cut off Feb. 7, and almost all will lose their hotel rooms by early March. Advocates for Katrina evacuees are terrified about what will happen next.

If FEMA deadlines aren't extended, "you're going to see folks homeless -- truly homeless and out on the street," says Mary Joseph, director of the Children's Defense Fund's Katrina Relief and Recovery for Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. None of New Orleans' homeless shelters are in operation and so all the city can offer is a patch of expensive, rain-soaked parkland. "I am scared," says Tracie Washington, a local civil rights lawyer who has represented Katrina evacuees facing eviction from their hotels. "Every indication says to me that we are headed for a catastrophe if we don't do something quickly."

On Feb. 6, FEMA held a press conference to brief reporters on the impending end of the hotel program. Little was said that would ease Washington's fears. "We have spent more than $529 million on this emergency sheltering program," said Libby Turner, head of FEMA's transitional housing program for hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "It is not long-term housing assistance that can continue for folks, and it is not what moves them along in their recovery. So we are working to end this program. Throughout disaster history, our partners have addressed the populations that do not qualify for federal assistance, most typically state departments of social and health services and charitable partners like voluntary organizations."

It's hard to imagine that Louisiana's overburdened social services are going to come to the rescue of storm victims filling hotels and motels all over New Orleans. Affordable housing in the city has been decimated. Many city residents await trailers promised by FEMA, which property owners can move into while they work to restore their homes. Although FEMA plans to house 20,000 city residents in trailers, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports a "major backlog" in getting them to residents.

Across the country, tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees remain housed in about 26,000 hotel rooms; 10,000 of the rooms are in Louisiana. Many in New Orleans say they've yet to receive help finding more permanent quarters from FEMA or any other government agency. Lawyers for evacuees say that thousands of applications for other housing aid have yet to be processed. Howard Godnick, an attorney representing Katrina victims in a class action suit against FEMA, says that since Dec. 12, three-quarters of applications that have been processed have been rejected, sometimes for minor errors in the paperwork.

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The lucky few who do get temporary housing assistance from FEMA are faced with difficult decisions. Families will receive $2,358 for three months, less than $800 a month. That's no longer enough to afford even a one-bedroom apartment in New Orleans, where rents now start at around $1,100. To make matters even more difficult, Godnick says recipients aren't allowed to use the $2,358 to pay security deposits or utility costs. Those who dont have resources to pay their own deposits have to either convince landlords to waive them or seek help from private charities.

Because FEMA's temporary housing assistance isn't enough to cover rent in New Orleans, evacuees -- including homeowners whose houses were destroyed in the post-Katrina flooding -- are being told to resign themselves to starting over in states with more affordable housing.

"FEMA's response has been, 'We've got housing all over the country, we just don't have it in New Orleans. These people need to move,'" says Washington. FEMA spokesman James McIntyre told the Times-Picayune: "People now will have to make some hard choices. We have mobile homes and travel trailers available in parishes in northern Louisiana, or they can take advantage of housing opportunities in other states or metro areas."

For a person who has lost everything, whose savings are depleted and community dispersed, that's not so easy. Thetius Sanders, a 49-year-old grandmother, has been living at a Hawthorne Suites Hotel in Dallas. At the beginning of February, she returned to New Orleans to record with Shades of Praise, the interracial gospel choir in which she sings. Before the storm, Sanders rented a house in Kenner, a New Orleans suburb. It had a backyard "big enough to place another house inside," she says. She worked in accounting at the criminal district court in New Orleans, a job she thinks she could return to if she could find a way to come home.

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Sanders expects FEMA to stop paying her hotel bill on Feb. 13, along with that of her daughter and two grandchildren. She doesn't know where they will go afterward. She has applied for every kind of aid available but so far has received only $2,000 from FEMA. During her five months in Dallas, she exhausted her savings by paying for food and for rental cars, which she needed to apartment-hunt in a city with little public transportation. Her own car was lost in Katrina. Sanders also has lupus and has been struggling to get government help in paying for her medications.

While in New Orleans, she plans to spend a few nights in the small apartment her sister is sharing with her own daughter and grandchildren. Sanders doesn't think she can move in permanently. "To be honest, the house is not that big," she says. Most of the people staying in her hotel are in similar situations. "Trust me, we're out there every day looking for places," Sanders says. "There's too many of us to put on the street."

FEMA originally intended to stop paying hotel bills on Dec. 15, but Godnick sued and succeeded in getting a federal judge to extend the program. With those extensions running out, evacuees face a confusing, multitiered system that determines when people will be cut off. People who wanted to keep their hotel rooms were supposed to call FEMA and get a registration number by Jan. 30. Those who failed to do so -- almost a quarter of the hotel population -- will be put out on Feb. 7. Most people who did register will have their rooms paid for until Feb. 13 in most of the country and until March 1 in New Orleans.

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When the deadlines hit, advocates for the homeless are bracing for disaster. "The tidal wave is about to happen," says Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "The homeless shelters in this country for the 'regular' homeless are already full, and they can't accommodate many more people. They will have to turn people away."

"Before Katrina," he adds, "I always believed that the victims of natural disasters were treated better and differently than the regular homeless population. When Katrina happened, I realized that the victims of natural disasters are not treated any better than the old and regular homeless."

Yet among certain white, affluent New Orleanians, one often hears complaints that hotel dwellers are being treated too well. There's a sense that the people still living in the hotels are shiftless or hopeless, either loafers riding a federal gravy train or hard cases who will end up living a marginal existence wherever they land.

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Sitting in a lobby bar in the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street one day, Lloyd Frischhertz, a lawyer from Lakeview, a largely white, upper-middle-class suburb of New Orleans, strikes up a conversation with me. He is a leader of a Mardi Gras Krewe, the local organizations, often composed of business and civic personages, that put on the city's famous parades. He is angry that the evacuees are occupying hotel rooms in New Orleans that could otherwise go to tourists who would help stimulate the economy.

"It should have been cut off already," Frischhertz says about FEMA hotel subsidies. "You've got a bunch of people -- I know somebody who essentially has nothing -- who've been living in resorts, and they're living it up. It's grand. While we can't get hotel rooms for our out-of-town people to come in for Mardi Gras because they won't evict these people. Why are they entitled to stay in these hotels? These hotel rooms are necessary to rebuild our city. We've got to show the convention business that we're alive."

The four black men nursing their beers on the other side of the bar don't seem to be living it up. They are living in the Doubletree hotel across the street and all are facing imminent eviction. Three of them work at Oschner Hospital, where they had stayed and labored through Katrina. One of them, a 57-year-old gray-haired man with kind, wry eyes and a knit Super Bowl hat, has the astonishing name of Jah Warhorse Rastafari. He's part Jamaican and part Seminole Indian, and Jah Warhorse Rastafari is the name his parents gave him. He shows me his driver's license, grumbling that people never believe him when he introduces himself.

Rastafari, an Oschner Hospital chef, owned a destroyed home in Gentilly -- "a real good neighborhood, real big house," he says. He is waiting for a FEMA trailer so he can have a reliable place to live while he restores his home. He's already gutted it and goes back often to visit. He thinks his three bulldogs, all of whom ran away during Katrina, are coming back as well. He says he sometimes sees their paw prints in the mud. "Katrina did not get them," he says. "My bulldogs are survivors."

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If his hotel payments run out before his trailer comes, Rastafari says he'll either live at Oschner or sleep in his car. He's unlikely to get much help staying in New Orleans from FEMA. On Feb. 2, the Times-Picayune reported that acting FEMA director David Paulison "took a stern tone" toward those who are still living in hotels while awaiting trailers, saying that there aren't enough trailers for everyone who wants one. "We can't keep putting thousands of trailers on the ground," Paulison said. "We need an alternative, and everyone wants a trailer put on their property while they repair their house, but I don't know that's going to happen."

Rastafari is luckier than some others; while he badly wants to stay in New Orleans, he has relatives spread throughout the country who can take him in. "I have kin folks everywhere," he says. "If I have to go, I'll just go. I can always find a job because I can cook." Others in the Doubletree are less fortunate. "Some probably will be homeless," he says. "If you don't have a place to live, your house is messed up, you're just out."

Sitting next to Rastafari is one of the unlucky ones. George Johnson, a soft-spoken man of 59, works as a cook and in the storeroom at Oschner. Like Rastafari, he stayed at the hospital through the storm. His apartment was damaged and his landlady informed him that she was evicting him so she could fix the place up and move in herself, as her own house had been ruined. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he says, eyes cast down. "I don't know where I'm going to go because I don't have anywhere to stay. I'm in a pickle. I haven't received anything from FEMA. I've been there and they keep telling me, 'You're pending, call back.'"

As Johnson is talking, the bartender who served Frischhertz his chardonnay walks over. He's been working at the Sheraton for almost two decades and is also staying across the street at the Doubletree with his wife, a city employee. Their three children -- the oldest is 20 -- are living in a subsidized apartment in Dallas, where the whole family had been evacuated after the storm. He recoils at the idea that he and his wife would have to join them.

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"This is how much I love New Orleans," he says, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo he'd gotten on his bicep after Katrina. It's an outline of the state of Louisiana with the numbers 504 -- New Orleans' area code -- and "4-Ever" written underneath.

The bartender's name is Michael; he doesn't want to publicize his last name. A 42-year-old born and raised in New Orleans, he says he is stunned and agonized by what seems to him like America's abandonment of him and his community. He hates being called a refugee -- he feels like it's an attempt to write him out of the American mainstream, to lump him in with the pitiful masses of the Third World. "That hurts," he says. "I've been working since I was 18 years old. I paid my bills, I paid my taxes, I'm not a refugee. Please stop calling me a refugee. I'm an American! I'm not a refugee. I hate that word!"

"It's like the n-word," adds Johnson.

If Katrina's victims are refugees, interjects Rastafari, "Where's our refugee camp?"

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Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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