For Some Katrina Evacuees, Another Displacement Looms
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
AUSTIN -- In the nine months since their New Orleans home was flooded with nine feet of water, Dianne Jeanpierre has worked hard to put her life and her daughters' lives back in order.
Their orderly apartment here is filled with gently worn donated furniture. The new routine for this Catholic family includes weekly inspirational services at a Baptist church.
Ashley, 17, attended her junior prom through the generosity of a department-store dress giveaway to children affected by Hurricane Katrina. Brittany, 14, had been enrolled in a high school for academically gifted students in New Orleans when the hurricane hit Aug. 29; she stayed focused and last week finished the school year with two citations for scholarship.
But the family's fragile stability is threatened. Jeanpierre has run out of unemployment insurance benefits from her former job as a security guard in New Orleans and cannot work because of debilitating asthma. Earlier this month, she got a notice that she would lose her housing benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Soon thereafter, her car was repossessed.
"I tried to make a home," said Jeanpierre, 46. "Now they're trying to eat you up, I tell you. Everything is just going downhill."
Jeanpierre's family is among about 55,000 nationwide facing the end of a FEMA-funded rental assistance program, in which local governments issued 12-month housing and utility vouchers.
Last month, FEMA began issuing letters to thousands of evacuees telling them their aid would be terminated. The vouchers are to end Wednesday in most of the country and on June 30 in 11 Texas jurisdictions, including Austin, Dallas and Houston.
That decision, says a class-action lawsuit filed by the Houston law firm of Caddell & Chapman and a consortium of public interest law groups, will create "widespread homelessness" and violates FEMA's statutory obligations to provide temporary housing assistance to hurricane victims.
FEMA's decisions on which evacuees to move into a housing assistance program with more rigorous requirements are "arbitrary, inconsistent and inequitable," the lawsuit contends. "As a result, FEMA is creating an opportunity to discontinue its housing assistance for tens of thousands of people."
Sixty-two members of the House filed a brief last week supporting the suit. It says that FEMA "continues to engage in a process that is marked by inefficiency, a lack of discernable standards and seeming disregard for the plight of the vulnerable survivors who are depending on the aid that FEMA is statutorily obligated to provide."
U.S. District Judge David Hittner is expected to rule Tuesday on a request to stop FEMA temporarily from shutting down the housing assistance program and to hold a trial on the lawsuit's merits.
"This process is broken, and FEMA is not following its mandates," said John B. Scofield Jr. of Caddell & Chapman. "Some people have extensions [to June 30], but still there are multiple thousands that are being left in the dust."