Charities offices turning to long-term needs of Katrina victims

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

SAN ANTONIO (CNS) -- Tens of thousands of people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina were still in limbo two months after the storm -- not wanting to go back to their previous homes, yet needing help to plant roots elsewhere.

"No," said Charles Blackwell Jr., when asked if he wanted to return to Jefferson, La., a small town west of New Orleans.

"There's always the risk of another flood," he told Catholic News Service. "Then there is the way New Orleans citizens were treated."

Blackwell was referring to the chaotic situation in the New Orleans area and the deficient emergency services provided by local, state and federal government agencies in response to Katrina, which hit New Orleans Aug. 29 and caused massive flooding in most of the city. Many of those affected the most were the city's poor, black residents.

Blackwell and his fiancee, Desiree Morgan, were interviewed at the Catholic Charities office of the San Antonio Archdiocese, where they picked up a $50 gas voucher to help them get around after they decided to stay in the San Antonio area where Morgan has relatives.

Officials in the Catholic Charities offices in San Antonio and in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said that many Katrina evacuees -- especially those from the New Orleans area and especially poor and working-class storm victims who ended up in shelters or in temporary housing in hotels -- do not want to return home.

They discovered that they had little economic incentive to go home, as they have little idea when, or if, the low-paying jobs they had will materialize again, said Catholic officials.

Catholic Charities officials said their agency is in a good position to help these people get re-established because its specialty is intermediate and long-term programs.

People need help finding housing and employment and placing their children in schools. Housing needs were becoming especially acute as emergency shelters were closing down and vouchers for temporary hotel lodgings were running out.

Morgan and Blackwell, an African-American couple, decided to stay in the San Antonio area after returning to the house they rented in Jefferson to see what they could salvage.

"There was pollution all around. You turned on the water and it came out rusty. The air smelled like chemicals," Morgan said.

Steve Saldana, director of San Antonio Catholic Charities, said most evacuees are extremely poor.

"Many came with only a black garbage bag stuffed with whatever personal possessions they could salvage," said Saldana. "Women arrived wearing dresses made out of paper."

Many people "rented their homes so they have no property to go back to," added Saldana.

Jennifer Carr, head of the emergency hurricane program for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said that a lot of evacuees told her that they never realized how poor New Orleans was until they evacuated to Houston.

"One person told me he can make $10,000 more a year in Houston doing the same job he did in New Orleans," said Carr.

There is also the "emotional impact" of the suffering, especially by people who sought refuge in the New Orleans Superdome, where they were exposed to violence, undignified treatment and a lack of basic services, she said.

While many evacuees want to relocate, they are reluctant to move too far from New Orleans, Carr said, making Houston, about 300 miles west of New Orleans, a choice spot.

Carr said their reluctance stems from some families being split over where to live, with some members deciding to relocate and others planning to return to New Orleans.

"People tell us: 'Houston is my home now. I have a job. I have an apartment. But my mom is going back. My brother is going back. We want to get together for Thanksgiving,'" she said.

The city of Houston has sheltered between 300,000 and 400,000 victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with most of the long-term needs involving Katrina victims.

Rita hit the Gulf Coast along the Texas-Louisiana border Sept. 24.

Carr said her office is providing services to 20,000 hurricane victims, with 70 percent of them Katrina evacuees. To staff the extra work load, the office hired seven employees from the New Orleans archdiocesan Catholic Charities office.

For people who are unwilling to return to their previous home and do not want to stay in Houston or San Antonio, the Catholic Charities offices in both cities provide a one-way air, bus or train ticket to anywhere in the continental United States where they have relatives or friends signed up to provide for them. The program is financed by the U.S. government's Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA.

The city of San Antonio received about 25,000 evacuees, mostly from Katrina.

Ben Kubany, San Antonio Catholic Charities emergency services case manager, estimated that about 2,000 plan to stay permanently.

The city has made 1,500 apartments available rent free for six months to a year.

Kubany said that evacuees who qualify for the apartments are now knocking on the door looking for help buying basic furniture such as chairs, a table and a bed. So his office is providing gift cards to department stores.

The city of Houston has a similar apartment subsidy program for evacuees.

Helping people find jobs in both cities is coordinated through a job bank operated by the Texas state government. In Houston, organizations involved in evacuee relief efforts also organized a job fair.

Meanwhile, Blackwell and Morgan, the couple who decided to stay in the San Antonio area in mid-October, began setting the foundations for their new life with assistance from various aid programs.

The $50 gas voucher from Catholic Charities fueled the search for furniture at thrift stores for the house they rented using money they received from FEMA.

Blackwell was hopeful about employment. He applied for a job with a maintenance company and was awaiting word about when he could start work.

"God is putting it together. Things are starting to happen fast," said Blackwell.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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