FEMA: The poor of new orleans no better than immigrants

nola1.jpg This is not how we treat our people. FEMA is quietly closing down trailer sites for those devastated by Hurricane Katrina, leaving many with little to nothing. The administration is choosing to treat the poor of New Orleans exactly and precisely the way they treat immigrants: use them, throw them away- criminalize and victimize them. Where is Oprah, and mainstream media now to show us the hurt and abuse of our government? I guess we have to leave it to local papers to give us the story:

Shirley Hitchens took a few deep breaths.

Sitting inside her FEMA trailer, worry consumed her. The walls started to close in. So she walked outside to get some fresh air. Her feet crunched on the gravel driveway of her trailer park. She took a seat on a well-worn kitchen chair just past the entrance.

Hitchens, 59, fretted because she doesn't know where she and her son will be living next month. Now they're living in Central City, at A.L. Davis Park at Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street. But in mid-October, she found a notice on her trailer door from FEMA headlined, "A.L. Davis Playground Temporary Housing Site Is Closing November 18, 2007."

Basically an eviction notice, it offered the services of a caseworker and two apartment-search Web sites, both of them nonfunctional.

Shifting to another FEMA park was not an option.

"It is recommended that your next move is into permanent housing since all parks will be closing," the note said.

Neither the city nor FEMA has publicly announced any park closures in New Orleans. But during the past few months, the agency has quietly delivered eviction notices to residents at nearly half the city's parks.

Since August, FEMA has mothballed more than 800 trailers in New Orleans. More than 550 more will be emptied in the current round of eviction notices. But the agency's efforts to phase out the trailer parks, always intended to be temporary housing for hurricane victims, might leave many departing residents in unstable living situations, largely because of the city's steep post-Katrina rents.

Typically, residents have been given between 30 and 60 days to find new housing, but they say that's often not enough time, given the acute shortage of affordable housing in New Orleans. Most people still in trailers are working-poor renters who have clung to the temporary solution for a lack of other viable options in their now high-rent hometown, where the $500 rents that were once the norm are now a rarity. The low-key efforts to shutter New Orleans FEMA parks contrast starkly with neighboring areas. In St. Bernard and Jefferson, parish officials have loudly advocated the parks' closure, mostly for aesthetic reasons. In Mississippi, FEMA officials announced recently that they hope to close all of the state's so-called "group sites" by the end of this year.

But New Orleans officials said they aren't pressuring FEMA to close its remaining 38 sites, which hold 1,447 trailers and are home to about 3,000 residents.

"This was driven by FEMA mandate," said Anthony Faciane, deputy director of neighborhood stabilization for the city's Office of Recovery Development and Administration. Faciane said the city's main concern was to see trailer occupants in stable housing once their parks were closed.

Confusion over deadlines

Some residents said that although they knew the trailers were temporary, the eviction notices caught them by surprise. That's because, in April, federal recovery coordinator Donald Powell, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson and FEMA administrator R. David Paulison announced that the Gulf Coast temporary housing assistance programs -- which include FEMA trailers -- had been extended through March 1, 2009.

"FEMA group-site housing is a temporary solution, and its residents are aware of this and reminded of this," said FEMA spokesman Andrew Thomas, who said the housing-assistance program will continue until March 2009 but that "there is a transition now to move residents into permanent housing, to be administered by HUD after the first of the year."

Thomas said FEMA has no firm timeline to close all parks. "There is no set date," he said.

But even FEMA's in-house information on the closures seemed incomplete. The agency first listed 12 sites that had received notice recently. Then, when trailer occupants in other parks produced their eviction notices, FEMA added those parks to the list. In the end, Thomas said that within the past 45 days, FEMA had posted eviction notices at nearly half the city's remaining sites: 16 of 38 parks.

A.L. Davis Park was one of them.

At first, said Hitchens, some A.L. Davis residents didn't take FEMA's deadline seriously. Since Hurricane Katrina, the agency has continually delayed housing deadlines, sometimes on its own, sometimes upon court order.

In April, federal officials, including Powell, announced that on March 1, 2008, Gulf Coast trailer residents would begin paying rent. So trailer residents assumed that the parks would continue through at least March.

'Living day by day'

Hitchens said that her son had been looking for apartments, but he hadn't yet found anything suitable. "Do you think FEMA will throw us out if we don't find a place?" she asked.


Ask the municipal employee who used to live in a Gentilly FEMA trailer, near the Elysian Fields overpass on what used to be the city-run Perry Roehm Stadium. Before the storm, he and some co-workers had helped groom the park's ball field.

But on Tuesday morning, he drove away from it in a car piled high with his belongings. The apartment he had rented wasn't available until Nov. 6, he said, and his extended family was still in Houston. So he might rent a motel room. Or he might end up sleeping in his car.

He couldn't stay in his trailer. His FEMA caseworkers told him no, he said.

The man didn't want his name used because he didn't know what role his employer, the city, played in emptying the trailer park.

Thomas, the FEMA spokesman, said the mayor's office had "a specific desire to see those sites occupying playground and recreational areas to be deactivated as soon as possible," a contention city officials deny.

As FEMA decommissioned its trailer sites, the city asked the agency to put municipally owned parks at the top of the list so that recreational programs could reopen, said Faciane from the Office of Recovery Development and Administration. But the city didn't instruct FEMA to vacate the park land within any specific time frame, he said.

Two Perry Roehm residents, Wayne Williams, 45, and his neighbor Vickie Thomas, 34, met up last week at the trailer park's metal mailboxes for the last time. All of their belongings were packed up, they said, and the trailer keys were on the counters. Both of them are moving in with relatives, a common scenario for departing trailer-park residents.

Williams, a longshoreman, was one of the vital workers brought back to New Orleans about a year ago and housed in a trailer. He said he wished he could return to his home on Tennessee Street in the Lower 9th Ward. But he's still waiting for money from the Road Home program.

Thomas said FEMA officials believed that it was time for Gulf Coast families to "take full advantage of the resources being offered," including rental referrals and an offer to relocate trailers to occupants' own lots.

"The time is now, and we, FEMA, will be here to assist," he said.

Williams said he had tried to tap into that offer of transitional help. He told his FEMA caseworker that his home wasn't ready yet and that his lot was too small to accommodate a trailer. So his caseworker said he could get into another trailer -- in LaPlace.

"Too far," Williams said.

So he looked at the FEMA-referred apartments. But the places he could afford were in what he considered sketchy blocks in Central City and eastern New Orleans, where he said he would "have to sleep with one eye open."

Other rentals were in poor condition.

"There are apartments, and then there are apartments," he said.

Instead, Williams will be staying with family, sleeping on a couch.

"I'm just living day by day, and waiting for a door to open," he said.

Affordable housing scarce

Vickie Thomas and her 65-year-old mother are moving to her uncle's house. The two of them have been rehabbing the family house near the London Avenue Canal levee break with the help of Road Home money received in May. Thomas, who works in Tulane's ophthalmology clinic, estimates that the house will be habitable in about two months. But every apartment they looked at required a six-month lease.

Also, she said that most "decent" one-bedroom apartments are renting for at least $1,000 -- too much, on top of the flooded house's mortgage and insurance, which they're still paying.

"People think we're living here for free," she said. "But they don't think about those payments."

At first, Thomas hoped that maybe they could stay the extra two months. She explained their situation to FEMA staff, hoping they would extend their deadline. "They were not budging," she said.

Across the street from the A.L. Davis trailer park at the Friendly Super Market, longtime store employee Mike Pilot has heard endless fretting about the park's closing.

"A lot of people don't know what they're going to do or where they're going to go," he said as he stocked a cooler with soft drinks.

Pilot said he doesn't blame Road Home for his neighbors' current situation. "Most of them are not homeowners, only renters. They're making the same little money they're always made, but now they're up against high, high rents," he said.

His casual assessment jibes with recent statistics. Of the remaining trailer-park residents in New Orleans, three out of four are renters, according to FEMA. They are also likely to have an annual household income of less than $15,000, according to a Louisiana State University survey of 10 FEMA group trailer parks that was released in August.

In pre-Katrina New Orleans, people with low incomes could still find apartments. An August report released by the advocacy group PolicyLink noted that before the hurricane 58 percent of rentals were less than $500.

The post-Katrina flood destroyed much of that affordable housing, and most of it hasn't been rebuilt. According to the PolicyLink report, government subsidies are projected to rebuild only about 25 percent of the city's stock of affordable rental housing. Currently on LAHousingSearch.org, a Web site used by FEMA caseworkers, only a few one-bedroom units listed for less than $600.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that the fair-market rent for an efficiency apartment in greater New Orleans is $764. For a one-bedroom, the fair-market rent is $846. Trailer-park occupants say that those numbers seem low, compared with what they've seen apartment-hunting: Average rents for habitable places are a step or two higher within the city, they say.

Family upended

In 2005, Shirley Hitchens was living in a family house in the Broadmoor neighborhood, taking care of her mother and her oldest sister. Both have since died. And the family house went to another family member.

"So I'm on my own," said Hitchens, who has worked secretarial jobs for most of her life. "I'm not a person who asks someone to take care of me." While she was displaced in Austin, Texas, she took computer classes through the local Urban League, trying to improve her skills.

Her only child, Dwayne Hitchens, 44, a longshoreman, was considered an essential worker and was brought back soon after the storm. He lived on a Navy vessel for awhile, then was assigned the FEMA trailer not long after Mardi Gras 2006, he said.

That fall, his mother moved in with him. From time to time, he's also made pallets on his trailer floor for one or more of his four children, who range in age from 15 to 25 years, and for his grandson, 15-month-old Dwayne III, a frequent visitor.

"Sometimes it's been so crowded in here, you could barely move around," said Dwayne Hitchens, unzipping his grandson's jacket. "It was packed, but a lot of love," his mother said.

The trailer became a toehold of sorts for the Hitchens family, a first stop for relatives making their way back from other cities.

"We were lucky to have it," Shirley Hitchens said. But now its time is running out.

Dwayne is feeling the pressure of the upcoming deadline. He's been looking for a new place all week, without much luck. He believes he'll get FEMA assistance to help pay rent, but it only applies to him, not his mother. And it won't help with the security deposit.

"I'm not looking for no mansion," he said, "just something decent."

Katy Reckdahl can be reached at kreckdahl@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3396.

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