By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006
HOUSTON -- The southwest corner of this city is one sprawling low-rise apartment complex after the next, a once-hot real estate area that died with the 1980s oil bust only to be reborn in the '90s as a low-income, high-crime neighborhood. Now it's Katrina turf.
New Tony's Express, a neighborhood convenience store, is sold out of T-shirts and caps stenciled with the numbers 504, 985 and 337 -- the area codes for New Orleans and southern Louisiana. The emergency room of West Houston Medical Center is so busy treating Hurricane Katrina evacuees the staff jokingly calls itself "Charity West," a reference to New Orleans's venerable Charity Hospital.
And now, police say that southwest Houston, long recognized as a problem area, is facing another manifestation of the Louisiana exodus: Katrina crime.
Since Sept. 1, when an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Louisianans resettled in Houston after Hurricane Katrina, evacuees are believed to have been involved in 26 slayings, or nearly 17 percent of all homicides. The cases, according to Houston police, involved 34 evacuees -- 19 of them victims and 15 of them suspects.
Late last month, investigators in the Houston Police Department's Gang Murder Squad announced the arrests of eight of 11 suspects believed linked to nine homicides in the city's southwest side and two others in nearby Pasadena, Tex. The slayings occurred since November, and all the suspects are displaced New Orleanians who landed in Houston after the hurricane.
"We did not initiate this effort with the intention of singling out New Orleans or Louisiana people," said Lt. Robert Manza, a police department spokesman. "It just so happens that every single one we arrested and three we're looking for are New Orleans residents."
"The message is clear: We're going to relocate these men from apartments in Houston to a prison in Texas," Manza said. "That's going to be their next home."
An increase in violent crime since Sept. 1 and a spate of homicides over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend involving Katrina evacuees have elicited urgent pleas from Mayor Bill White and Police Chief Harold L. Hurtt to the federal government to help pay the cost of providing increased security and to hire more officers. Hurtt is taking the request to Washington next week as part of a meeting of police chiefs. White is also in negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Both officials are careful not to blame Houston's recent rise in violent crime solely on Katrina evacuees, saying such statistics were rising last year before the hurricane. They point to what they call the majority of law-abiding Louisianans now living in the city and say the crime rate per thousand for the evacuee population is not greater than it was among Houstonians before the influx of Katrina survivors.
But the issue facing the city, officials said, is that Houston's 2 million population grew by about 10 percent virtually overnight, straining all key city services such as schools, hospitals, emergency services and, particularly, public safety. The addition of the evacuee population has dropped the ratio of police officers per thousand Houstonians to 1.9, compared with 2.3 before Katrina and with the national average of 2.8.
"We should not be penalized for opening up our city to folks who lost their homes," Hurtt said in an interview last week. "We are just trying to help them get back to normal as soon as possible."
Late last month, the police announced two initiatives targeting three "hot spots" in the city made up largely of apartment complexes, many of them with concentrations of Katrina evacuees. The Gang Murder Squad was created, and the 4,800-member police force, depleted by about 700 retirements in recent years, started overtime programs to increase plainclothes and undercover patrols, conduct warrant sweeps and respond more quickly to calls for service. In the first 19 days of this year, a new Neighborhood Enforcement Team Taskforce had responded to calls involving complaints by 110 Katrina evacuees. Of the suspects apprehended, 229 were evacuees, police said.
Officials are asking FEMA for $6.5 million to reimburse those overtime costs and for federal aid to help beef up the force, starting with the addition of at least one police cadet class of 70 officers.
"We have a much larger population, and that's the rationale," the mayor said. "If we would not have stepped up and taken in the Americans made homeless by Katrina, we wouldn't have a [larger] population to protect. We also have some people engaged in criminal activities in Louisiana which they've continued here. So we have a larger criminal population to deal with, too."
Although overall crime in Houston dropped 2 percent last year, homicides jumped by 23.5 percent, police say. Three of the city's police districts, which started experiencing an increase in homicides before the last quarter of 2005, have seen a spike in homicides since the influx of Katrina evacuees. Those districts -- two on the southwest side and one in north-central Houston -- are almost exclusively made up of apartment complexes, many of which were 10 to 30 percent vacant in recent years.
Two factors spurred the almost overnight occupation of almost all the city's apartment complexes: the influx of hurricane evacuees and Houston's generous apartment voucher program, which paid for a year's worth of rent for displaced Louisianans, the cost of which the city will be reimbursed by FEMA. Apartment buildings in southwest Houston and certain north-central neighborhoods, with their low rents and high vacancy rates, became the new homes for almost 30,000 Katrina evacuees, according to a recent analysis by the Houston Chronicle.
Jessie Brown, who started a community center for children in one southwest-side complex and worked with local police to clean up crime in recent years, has seen progress slip. "Houston had a problem before Katrina, but when the poorest neighborhood from New Orleans came here, it just intensified and magnified things," she said. "You're going to have good and bad, no matter what. But I noticed things have changed. I don't feel comfortable walking around at night anymore."
Most of the homicides that occurred in the last quarter of 2005 occurred in the city's apartment complexes. But there are not just homicides. Police said they have seen a significant increase in calls for service across the board. The first indication of such change became evident several months ago in the number of "calls holding," or calls for police service that one shift had to take on when a previous shift of officers went off duty.
"We used to have five calls holding, then it was 30, 40, 50, 60 calls holding or left over," said Officer John M. Trevino of the 19th District, which covers one of the new crime hot spots in southwest Houston. "It's crazy. The board was full of calls."
In announcing the arrests of the eight Louisiana murder suspects Friday, police said the men -- members of rival New Orleans housing project gangs -- were also responsible for 18 other crimes in Houston in recent months, including three aggravated robberies, three aggravated assaults, aggravated kidnapping, drug sales and car theft.
"We literally opened up our city and you would think the persons you're opening up to would be on their very best behavior," said Officer Ray Hunt, also of the 19th District. "Eighty-five percent are. But the 15 percent we're dealing with are not." Hunt figures that a similar percentage of Houstonians are prone to cause trouble, "so now it's double the problem," he said.
Hunt's recent night shift in the 19th began with 23 calls holding -- "a good night," Hunt said. Within four hours he would respond to a high-speed chase that started at an apartment complex in southwest Houston and ended at the intersection of two major highways several miles away. It involved three vehicles and nine people from New Orleans, according to their driver's licenses. One man carried his license in a leather binder that identified him as the brother of a New Orleans police officer. Two weapons and $8,000 in cash were found in two of the cars.
Not all police calls involving New Orleans evacuees involve violent or serious crime, but they all take up officers' time and put pressure on the force.
After the chase, Hunt would join four other police officers in answering a call about a burglary in progress at another complex, where they found a mentally ill man from New Orleans who had used a brick to break a window to enter an apartment. He said he lived there with his brother, but he had no keys, no identification and no idea where his brother was. Inside the sparsely furnished unit was a FEMA guide on how to apply for aid, and an eviction notice dated Jan. 20 for "Prohibited conduct, behaving in a disturbing manner, threatening the health, comfort and safety of others."
He spoke slowly and was largely incoherent, but he made sense when he talked about New Orleans. "It was hard, you know. Bus. The helicopter came and brought me to the Galleria," he said as he sat on a dirty couch, his hands handcuffed behind his back. "Lot of my friends drowned. Sad, bro'."