Wednesday, June 4, 2008

We Fear the Worst Is Yet to Come: A Call to Action

Early this morning, Eric Minshew, a 49 year old mentally ill FEMA trailer resident living in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, was fatally shot by police officers after a standoff which was precipitated when he ordered FEMA workers to leave his trailer when they arrived for an inspection late yesterday afternoon. We have deep sympathy for Mr. Minshew, as well as his family and friends. We grieve and wish that the severe housing and health crisis on the Gulf Coast did not have to come to this. But we cannot say that we are surprised.

On February 26th we posted a blog entry here, warning that over 100,000 Gulf Coast residents faced eminent eviction from their FEMA trailers. We warned that a severe health and housing crisis loomed ahead. That crisis has arrived.

Last week FEMA announced that approximately 23,000 families, over 60,000 residents, are still living in FEMA-supplied temporary housing units across the Gulf Coast. Those Gulf Coast residents still living in FEMA trailers are more than desperate. As are the thousands of displaced residents left homeless after being denied further FEMA assistance. The imminent fear of homelessness, combined with extremely high levels of stress, worsening mental illness, and lack of mental health services, makes this situation volatile and today has led to the tragic loss of a human life.

In New Orleans, by rough estimates, our homeless population has doubled since Katrina, with over 12,000 homeless residents citywide. In addition, over 60% of those residents have been made homeless by Hurricane Katrina and 30% have received FEMA rental assistance at some time after the storm. See last week’s New York Times article for more information on this, here. Moreover, when the Louisiana Justice Institute published our report in April, entitled NO WAY TO TREAT OUR PEOPLE: FEMA Trailer Residents 30 Months after Katrina, we noted that over 7.5% of the FEMA trailer residents we interviewed in January listed mental health problems as the major obstacle to getting out of their trailer. In addition, we noted that only 3% reported having received mental health care since the storms.

Displaced residents on the Gulf Coast have been told over and over again that they have no rights – no rights to return home, no rights to health care and no rights to stay in their trailer. They have filled out form after form, reached out to FEMA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other social services agencies for assistance. They have searched far and wide for apartments to rent. Sometimes they have been interviewed by the press, interviewed by nonprofits, and some residents have organized themselves and participated in meeting with high level officials from FEMA, HUD and the state governments. They have complained for 2 years or more about symptoms related to exposure to high levels of formaldehyde, including breathing problems, itchy eyes and skin. They have demanded additional mental health services to assist with their worsening insomnia, depression and mood swings. They have been denied rental assistance by FEMA, their Road Home Program money has not come in yet, their contractor ran out with $80,000 of their insurance money. They have been fired from their jobs because they had to move around so much, from trailer park to trailer park, had to take time off to navigate the bureaucracy, go to court, and take their sick children to the doctor. When FEMA offered them a voucher for a hotel room for 30 days, they did not take it. They know that once they leave the trailer there is no going back and they would rather live in the toxic trailer for a few more days, a few more months, than be homeless.

We are not surprised by the news of the deadly standoff between Eric Minshew and FEMA because we have seen the desperation in the eyes of our clients, our friends and the advocates they work with, from Alabama to Mississippi to Louisiana.

A few days ago we had to advise a Grandmother living with her nine children and grandchildren in a FEMA trailer at Renaissance Village to take a 30 day hotel voucher from FEMA to avoid a standoff and further anguish for her children. The grandmother had gone on TV the night before, telling the world about her the health problems her grandchildren had developed since living in the FEMA trailer and extended exposure to formaldehyde. The next morning, at 8am, FEMA officials knocked on the door to her trailer and told her she needed to pack her things, collect her children and grandchildren, and move into a hotel by 3pm. The FEMA officials said that she had gone on TV and told the world that her children were being exposed to formaldehyde and she needed to leave that very day before the children were exposed further. This may sound like common sense - how can a mother or grandmother choose to further expose her children to formaldehyde which is making her children sick? However, this grandmother was stuck with two no good options: homelessness or further exposing her children to formaldehyde. FEMA had told her a few weeks before that it would not pay her rental assistance because she could not prove that her pre-Katrina home was storm-damaged. She knew that after she went into the hotel she would have 30 days and then she and her children would be homeless. She also knew that she had no money to pay for food while she was in the hotel and would not have access to the Catholic Charities, FEMA and other assistance, the free health services, nor to the transportation that has been provided to residents at Renaissance Village. What country is this where we force grandmothers to make a decision like that? What you decide? And can we ever know what we would choose in her place after surviving Hurricane Katrina and living in a FEMA trailer in Renaissance Village for almost three years.

We fear the worse is yet to come. As FEMA continues to push these residents out of their trailers and off FEMA assistance altogether, giving deadline after deadline, with little to no case management or other assistance with transition, people will only become more desperate. Our greatest fear is that the violence will only continue and will get worse.

This is a call to action. We need you to stand with us and demand that all displaced residents on the Gulf Coast be provided with the support and assistance that they need, that they deserve. We need you to help us bring dignity and justice back to the table, to ensure that the desperation and violence ends today.

Take Action:

1. Take a look at the blog entry below entitled “Let Your Voice Be Heard on Trailer Evictions” and call FEMA, HUD and the other numbers listed to express your outrage and demand: 1) Immediate, Safe, Affordable and Permanent Housing; 2) Case Management; and 3) An international health registry, health studies and health care for all FEMA trailer Residents.

2. Express your outrage – post comments here, we will compile them and send them to local, state and federal officials.

3. Contact us to join the coalition of residents, advocates and others fighting for all displaced residents.


John Napier said...

This should not be happening in the richest country in the history of Earth.

Maat42 said...

Why doesn't FEMA work out a system where they identify the specific needs of trailer residents and tailor the solutions to each. In other words, offer them a viable plan in exchange for return of the trailer. For example, if a trailer resident cannot rebuild because he has no Road Home money and the Contracter ran off with the rest. FEMA should assess the cost of rebuilding his home, hire and pay their own Contracters to do the job, then collect the raggedy trailer upon completion. FEMA needs to keep active records on the people who they supposedly assist rather than arbitrarily deciding who is worthy of receiving it.

bird feet said...

I can't believe that this nightmare is continuing. What I find to be the most sickening and ironic aspect of all of this is that many Americans probably watch the evening news and curse China for abandoning their citizens in the wake of the quakes that have torn apart many cities and towns, while the same type of disregard has been going on in the southern United States. For a while it seemed that FEMA's treatment of the storm victims was a sort of insult-to-injury situation, but as the physical and mental health conditions of so many deteriorate, it's become simply injury-to-injury. Good luck, everybody.