You don't Have to Go Home...
"What FEMA is offering residents in grossly insufficient," states Shakoor Aljuwani, the lead organizer with All Congregations Together and the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. FEMA is offering a 30-day hotel voucher to some of residents, but not all, who have not yet found housing. If at the end of these 30 days residents have not moved from the hotels and into permanent housing, many residents have been evicted from their hotel rooms with no plans for further arrangements. FEMA, in effect, is finishing the job that began with the levee failures after hurricanes Rita and Katrina, rendering thousands of American citizens homeless for a second time.
Key in this forced removal is that it is not just residents of Renaissance Village in Baker or other FEMA trailer parks that are being evicted, but those who still reside in trailers on their own property as well. A city policy was enacted in order to remove trailers from the property of private citizens due to the well-publicized existence of formaldehyde in the trailers and the potential danger trailers pose during hurricane season. While both those threats are imminent and dangerous, the alternative is homelessness for many of New Orleans’ citizens who run the gamut from vital components of the workforce that keeps the city functioning to the elderly and infirmed. Because of the limited number of reputable contractors, many citizens residing in trailers on their property have not been able to repair their homes. Because of this short-sighted policy and lack of a proposed remedy, these citizens’ future and safety is in jeopardy.
Lack of case management and transition assistance on the ground continues. Due to the dearth of affordable housing—which is in part a result of the destruction of public housing—in post-Katrina New Orleans, there is little to no available rental property. In addition, many available rental properties in the Greater New Orleans Area are disinclined to accept FEMA housing vouchers. Many of these trailer residents are left stranded with no choice but the hotels that FEMA is attempting to strong-arm them into.
A Call to Action
In order to draw attention to this disturbing chain of events, a group of residents and advocates have come together from across the Gulf Coast--from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana--to advocate for residents left in FEMA trailers and all others who are being left homeless. Last week this group drafted a letter, calling on FEMA to uphold the commitments it made on February 14th to provide assistance to residents transitioning out of FEMA trailers, including moving assistance, furniture, and case management. In addition, the group called on FEMA, HUD, other federal, state, and local agencies and officials to work together to achieve a long-term resettlement plan, permanent affordable housing for all displaced residents on the Gulf Coast, as well as a health registry and health services. The group was able to receive over 30 local. statewide, and national organizations to sign on in support and presented this letter to Paul Rainwater, Director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, William Peterson, FEMA Region 6 Director, Jim Star, FEMA Acting Associate Deputy Administrator, Gulf Coast Recovery, David Vargas, Director of HUD's Voucher Program, the entire LA Congressional delegation, the entire LA state legislative delegation, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, and the New Orleans City Council.
Zack Carter of Alabama Arise. Image courtesy of Shannon Bennett, Episcopal Diocese of LA
In addition, on Thursday May 29, 2008, a press conference was held last week at the Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans which was led by Bishop Jenkins of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana featured speakers from hurricane affected areas from across the Gulf South. Testimony was heard not just from non-profit workers, but residents themselves that gave poignant testimony on how they are falling through the FEMA bureaucratic cracks.
FEMA trailer residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama all spoke of the precarious nature of their situation, unsure of what they could do to either secure permanent housing or remain in these trailers. Two women who lived in trailers on their own property, one from Jefferson Parish in Louisiana and the other from the Mobile area of Mississippi, expressed that their immediate option was to pitch tents in their back yards because their homes are not yet inhabitable. Others reported finding apartments only to be told by FEMA that they were unwilling to subsidize their rent. Still more remarked they were deemed ineligible for FEMA assistance after 2+ years of residing in FEMA trailers, and had no idea of what to do next. Those who testified represented various tracts of society from the disabled to the middle-class, yet each was faced with a similar dilemma.
The Stories are Heartbreaking
Image from the May 29th Press Conference courtesy of Shannon Bennett, Episcopal Diocese of LA
We cannot let these decisions by FEMA and the city to go unchallenged. This flyer includes contact numbers for politicians who are in a position to affect change. Please pass along this message and let your concerns for our fellow citizens be heard.
Read the Regional Statement of Displaced Residents here.
Other Articles on the Three State Coalition Advocating on Behalf of Displaced Residents on the Gulf Coast:
Group fights park closures as Sunday deadline nears--The Advocate
FEMA Trailer Residents Unite as Housing Crisis Looms--San Francisco Bay View