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Evacuees Feel Stress From FEMA Deadlines

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.

Hampered by the uncertainty of whether they can ever return to New Orleans or other devastated cities, the evacuees are trapped in the bureaucratic red tape that governs federal disaster relief. The three-month supply of emergency food stamps has ended, and emergency $2,300 housing stipends have been depleted.

Rules for the longer-term recovery assistance are confusing to many evacuees and landlords, and aid is slow arriving. Evacuees face imminent deadlines to get into permanent housing wherever they landed, and many will have to relocate without furniture or with only the barest of necessities.

"This is more than just about finding them an apartment or a house to live in," said Roy Craft, executive director of the Regional Council of Churches of Atlanta, which next month will open a huge interagency resettlement center fashioned after the Vietnamese refugee resettlement programs of the 1970s. "This is about case management."

FEMA is emptying hotels and is going to terminate rental assistance to Houston and the housing authorities of Austin, Beaumont, Dallas and San Antonio, ending the federal public assistance emergency program. It will institute an individual assistance recovery program under which people will be eligible for a year's worth of rental assistance, meted out three months at a time. But they must prove that their homes were destroyed, that they were paying rent or a mortgage when the storm hit and that they were uninsured. They also must show the aid they get is used for rent to get a three-month renewal of the assistance.

"For all those people who still do qualify for individual assistance, the rent will be paid for a year, but they won't get free utilities," said FEMA spokesman Don Jacks. "Those in hotels won't be able to have maid service every day, and they won't be eligible to go to a shelter to get three free meals a day."

The program, he said, "was not designed to have FEMA life-long assistance for disaster victims. It's a leg up to help you get back on your feet."

But Poule and Theresa Marnez and their five children are having a hard time rebounding and moving on from their two FEMA-subsidized rooms in a hotel near the Johnson Space Center. Their four-bedroom rental home in Sulphur, La., was destroyed by Hurricane Rita.

Sitting in FEMA's Disaster Relief Center in Houston last week with his wife and three of the children, Marnez clutched a stack of multiple listings he had obtained from a real estate agent. He has a housing voucher from the city, and he needs a large house. He had been rejected five times by landlords who said they didn't want to participate in the voucher program for various reasons, including the fact the program does not provide security deposits even though it guarantees the rent.

"I have been renting a vehicle to move back and forth looking for houses, wasting money, gas and time, and I haven't gotten a house yet," Marnez said.

Marnez is a welder who worked freelance jobs at chemical plants in southwestern Louisiana and southeast Texas. The weekend Rita hit, he was supposed to head to Houston on a job that would give him at least several weeks worth of work at more than $20 an hour.

Instead, he and his family weathered the storm at a friend's home in Sulphur, where they were marooned for five days once the storm passed. Damage to their house made it unlivable, so they stayed with the friend in her two-bedroom house until they wore out their welcome. Unable to find other housing in Louisiana, they headed to Houston in their hurricane-damaged car, convinced they would have better luck.

But since late October, the Marnezes have been living in two hotel rooms. No jobs have come Marnez's way, and he has been suffering from anxiety attacks as time goes on. "I'm getting disappointed, man," he said. "I'm getting desperate."

In a two-page letter he was carrying addressed to FEMA, neatly handwritten in blue marker, he explained the family's predicament, saying he had sought out real estate agents and expended the little money the family had on rental cars to get around the big city.

"What are we going to do is my question without a house after the [Feb.] 7, 2006 deadline" to vacate the hotel, he wrote. "Can you please do something about it ASAP. Thank you. Sincerely, Poule Christian Marnez."

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