From Hurricane To Homelessness

New Orleans native Victor Lewis sat in a hotel lobby Sunday afternoon wondering when he would finally catch a break. His post-Hurricane Katrina westward migration began with five grim nights in the New Orleans Superdome, followed by 20 days shelter in Dallas' Reunion Arena, four nights sleeping on Dallas streets, and finally a bus ride to Oakland, Calif. and a Red Cross-subsidized hotel room. In less than two weeks, he may be forced to move his few belongings again.

"Man, I'm so tired," he said, clutching a container of donated pastries. "I've been sawing plenty of wood, but the blade has gotten dull."

The clock is ticking for evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, with a Dec. 1 FEMA deadline approaching that will end the direct payment program subsidizing their transitional accommodations. FEMA officials have said they are working closely with state and local officials to avoid a shelter crisis for the 150,000 evacuees who still live in hotel rooms nationwide, but local health and human service workers are bracing for a crunch of homelessness.

Lewis, who taught black history and coached football at New Orleans high schools, says he might move to a nearby freeway underpass if he cannot find an affordable apartment by the end of the month. "Looks like I'm back behind the eight ball," he said.

Local social workers and charity organizations are scrambling to place evacuees, following the sudden announcement of the deadline. David Wee, head of Crisis and Specialized Services for the city of Berkeley, Calif. said 110 evacuees have sought housing assistance in Berkeley, and about a third are currently living in local hotels. The FEMA statement, issued Nov. 15, announcing the coming deadline surprised Wee who thought the city had until later in December to help evacuees secure more permanent housing. "We really do not have much time until these people will have to pay their own hotel bills or face homelessness during the holidays," said Wee. "I hope that FEMA reconsiders and extends this deadline."

Jean Baker, spokesperson for the California FEMA regional office, said the decision serves the goal of helping evacuees become self-reliant and regain normalcy in their lives.

"This is part of an ongoing process of moving people from interim to long-term housing and helping them get back on their feet," she said. "We are making every effort to get all the evacuees in long-term housing by Dec. 1."

But local housing advocates in Bay Area communities caution that in this tight rental market, the proposed FEMA package of $2,350 to cover the first three months of rent is insufficient.

Eden Information and Referral, a non-profit clearinghouse for emergency and low-cost housing for Alameda County, has identified 135 rental units with landlords willing to lower rents for evacuees. But while a landlord might lower the rent of an apartment from $1,500 to $900, said Eden spokesperson Ollie Arnold, that is still too expensive given the resources made available through FEMA.

The Red Cross, which still has 691 open Katrina cases in Alameda County, is gearing up for an influx of housing seekers.

"We are very concerned about all the people that might fall through the cracks," said Greg Smith, of the Bay Area Chapter. FEMA is partnering with the Red Cross and community-based housing resource centers in a massive outreach campaign, said Baker. She urged evacuees to call FEMA's assistance line, 1-800-762-8740.

But the staff of Berkeley's Hurricane Katrina Resource Center, which opened Sept. 16 to provide case management to families and individuals fleeing the Gulf Coast, has reported tremendous difficulty getting through to FEMA. "The last two or three weeks, it's been virtually impossible to talk to a live person at FEMA," said Spence Casey, of the Berkeley Hurricane Resource Center.

Several evacuees who have still not received their "bridge fund," the $2,000 immediate relief amount, as well as coordinate health services, employment, and referrals to permanent housing. Berkeley is tapped out of affordable housing and placing all his cases in the next two weeks will be impossible, Casey said.

"This crisis has been so unpredictable, but with this deadline, the results are very predictable," he said. "This could be another man-made disaster that follows the natural one, but it can be mitigated by an extension of this deadline."

"We are already stretched to the limits by the issue of homelessness in the region," said Julie Sinai, senior aide to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. "There is no concrete plan on the table to solve this problem with the Katrina evacuees, but it should not be left to local responsibility. The feds really need to come through with the proper resources and timeline."

Rep. Barbara Lee's office confirmed that she is heading up a California delegation that will issue a plea this week to President Bush to postpone the FEMA hotel compensation deadline.

"I've practically given up, but I think that's what they're banking on," said Victor Lewis in his hotel. "It's simply amazing to me that they would put us back out in the street."


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