Evacuees Feel Stress From FEMA Deadlines

Katrina evacuees Stacie LeJeune, her son, Alex, 4, and her boyfriend, George Corcoran, await a rental voucher at a FEMA center in Houston.
Katrina evacuees Stacie LeJeune, her son, Alex, 4, and her boyfriend, George Corcoran, await a rental voucher at a FEMA center in Houston. (Photos By Sylvia Moreno -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005

HOUSTON -- For days, Clarence Gray Sr. has carried around a folded piece of paper in his pocket with scribbled numbers on it that are supposed to get his life back to normal.

Apartment locators. Furniture donors. FEMA. Texas Department of Human Services. Food stamps. The number for a nice lady named Linda, who, when he asked her for 50 cents for bus fare to apartment hunt, simply chauffeured him one afternoon to help him search. He is a Katrina evacuee, and that's all she needed to know.

"It ain't like I ain't trying," said Gray, 56, whose home for almost four months has been a room at a Days Inn in far north Houston. But he has no vehicle, which is a must in this sprawling, car-dependent city. He has tried to walk along the massive network of interstate highways but does not have the stamina to sustain the treks. And the few apartment buildings he got to refused to take a city rental voucher subsidized by FEMA.

Gray has no cell phone to stay in touch. He has no income other than a small monthly disability check. He has heart and cervical disc problems. He has costly prescriptions to fill. His family is divided -- some back in Louisiana, some scattered around Houston. And now he's being treated for depression brought on by his living situation.

"The walls," Gray said. "Oh lordy, they get closer and closer."

Even in the nation's most generous host to hurricane evacuees, resettling and resuming life post-Katrina or post-Rita is a challenge. Thousands of evacuees, like Gray, are still living in hotels subsidized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and face a Feb. 7 deadline to find permanent housing.

An additional 105,000 evacuees housed in Houston apartments under a city-sponsored voucher program that guaranteed rent and utilities for a year might face eviction on March 1, when FEMA stops reimbursing the city for the program. City officials and apartment owners are protesting the move, but FEMA officials say they will instead provide a year's worth of rent-only payments to individuals under a more strictly regulated assistance program.

Mayor Bill White has declared the fourth-largest city in the country "full," and says there are only 3,500 moderately priced apartments left.

"People think people got money and people getting on with their lives," said Katrina evacuee Linda Jeffers, who is working with the Metropolitan Organization in Houston, a professional organizing group affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. But that's not true for many, said Jeffers, who spent the weeks before Christmas trying to get donated mattresses, blankets and food -- as well as potential homes -- to families. "This is where we are," she said.

After Hurricane Katrina struck in late August, followed a month later by Rita, Houston took in an estimated 250,000 of the 2.5 million Gulf Coast residents who evacuated -- a migration not seen in this country since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Displaced residents are now scattered from Maine to Hawaii and Alaska to Puerto Rico, with the largest concentrations, according to FEMA records, registered as living in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

Some evacuees were still living in shelters until recently. Just last week, FEMA closed its last evacuee shelter in San Antonio, moving a couple of hundred people, including a dozen who are elderly or disabled, from the former Kelly Air Force Base into suitable housing.

Nationwide, FEMA still rents about 37,000 hotel rooms, four months after Katrina. The states with the largest number of evacuee-occupied hotel rooms at the end of last week were Louisiana, with 11,076; Texas, with 9,487; Georgia with 7,142; Florida, with 2,450; and Mississippi, with 1,468. FEMA's latest formula for calculating the numbers of people living in hotels is to multiply each room by 1.5.

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