Thursday, June 19, 2008

Renaissance Village No More

As of Tuesday June 17, 2008, Renaissance Village, once the FEMA's largest trailer park, officially closed, leaving its residents to find other means of shelter and resources. FEMA provided hotels for up to 30 days. However, these temporary living situations are marked with uncertainty, especially due to the lack of networks to keep residents in contact with each other. For many, the community at Renaissance Village acted as a surrogate family, helping residents cope with what they had lost in New Orleans. There is currently a grassroots effort to gather contact information of former residents and create a resource network to link people back together. LJI hopes to soon have more information on where the former residents of Renaissance Village currently are and what their plans are for permanent housing.

Unfortunately, there has been no news media coverage on the closing of Renaissance Village, which illustrates the continued struggle to accurately report on the circumstance of Hurricane Katrina survivors.

LJI will continue to follow this story as it develops and assist the former residents of Renaissance Village in any way.

Jeff Mendelman, Justice Roars contributor and LJI intern

Monday, June 9, 2008

Recent Editorials on FEMA Trailer Residents and the Need for Permanent Housing

Stress, fear of homelessness are a volatile mix
Saturday, June 07, 2008
Re: "Trailers in N.O. must go by July 1," Page 1, June 6.

Early Wednesday morning, Eric Minshew was fatally shot after a standoff which began when he ordered FEMA workers to leave his trailer outside his gutted house in Lakeview. I have deep sympathy for Mr. Minshew, as well as his family and friends. I am immensely saddened and wish that the severe housing and health crisis on the GulfCoast did not have to come to this. But I cannot say that I am surprised.

Last week FEMA announced that approximately 23,000 families are still living in FEMA trailers across the Gulf Coast. Those Gulf Coast residents in FEMA trailers are more than desperate, as are the thousands of displaced residents left homeless after being denied further FEMA assistance. The fear of homelessness, combined with extremely high levels of stress, worsening mental illness and lack of mental health services, makes this situation volatile.

A few days ago I 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 family. The grandchildren had developed health problems since moving into the trailer.

FEMA had already told her that it would not pay her rental assistance. She knew that after she went into the hotel she would have 30 days, and then she and her family would be homeless. She had no money to pay for food while she was in the hotel, and would not have access to the Catholic Charities, health services and transportation that has been provided to residents at Renaissance Village.

What kind of country is this, where we force grandmothers to make a decision between a toxic tin box and homelessness? What would you decide?

As FEMA continues to push these residents out of their trailers and off FEMA assistance, people only become more desperate. As residents and advocates, we are all in agreement: We fear the worse is yet to come.

Lauren E. Bartlett
Staff Attorney
Louisiana Justice Institute
New Orleans

Headline falsely suggests a life of catered luxury
Sunday, June 01, 2008

We were deeply disappointed to read the Sun Herald's May 30 headline "FEMA moving some to hotels, paying for catered meals."

While it's true that families moved to hotels have packaged meals delivered at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day, the article fails to explain
why: hotel rooms do not have kitchens, a refrigerator, a stove or even a microwave.

People are in hotels because of failed policies: FEMA's failure to safely house displaced people; Mississippi's failure to prioritize and build affordable apartments; and local governments' failure to permit affordable housing. This hotel plan is the housing of last resort.

We appreciate FEMA recognizing that families with no place to go, relocated into rooms about the same size as FEMA trailers but without any ability to store groceries or heat soup, has a duty to assist families to eat during this difficult transition time. We believe the Sun Herald should have recognized and reported this fact, instead of using a headline that falsely suggests a life of luxury and ease awaits these formaldehyde-poisoned, displaced, and disrespected Mississippians.

Mississippi Center for Justice

Published: June 9, 2008
New Orleans is struggling with a growing number of sick and disabled people who have become homeless since the hurricane. This crisis will only get worse until local, state and federal officials come together behind a plan that finds short-term housing for them immediately, and permanent affordable housing for them quickly.
Congress can start by approving a mdest, $73 million in funding to house many of the region’s ill and disabled residents, who would also be provided with psychiatric and social services. Such a measure passed the Senate, but it is facing resistance in the House.
Congress also needs to take at least two additional steps to prevent even more people from becoming homeless in New Orleans, where rents have soared since the storm. It should extend the disaster housing assistance program, which is set to expire in March 2009, so more people are not forced into the streets. It should also rewrite federal disaster law to permit the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide the long-term assistance that thousands of hurricane survivors are clearly going to need.
In New Orleans, homeless services agencies estimate that the homeless population has doubled since the storm. The homeless are said to be sicker and more severely disabled than in the past. Outreach workers have come across people suffering from severe mental disorders, as well as from cancer, AIDS and end-stage kidney disease.
In what could be a harbinger of things to come, 30 percent of the people surveyed in one homeless encampment reported that they had moved onto the streets after being cut off from Federal Emergency Management Agency housing assistance or while living in a household that had lost the benefit.
The state of Louisiana has committed itself to creating 3,000 units of supportive housing targeted to extremely low-income families, which includes many people with disabilities and special needs. But for the units to be affordable, Congress must pass the $73 million in funding to pay for rent subsidies.
This would be a terrible place to economize. The dollar amount is small, and the lives of some of this country’s most vulnerable citizens — who were already abandoned once by their government — are at stake.

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.

Let Your Voice Be Heard on Trailer Evictions

Click image to enlarge

Victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita are being evicted from their trailers all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast .

You can help prevent that from happening.

Please contact any of the following offices or your local elected officials to voice your concern for the future of our fellow citizens:

The White House Switchboard: 202-456-1414

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-5824
New Orleans, LA Office: 504-589-2427

Louisiana Senator David Vitter
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-4623
Metairie, LA Office: 504-589-2753

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-5744
Montgomery, AL Office:334-223-7303

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-4124
Montgomery, AL Office:334-244-7091

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-5922
Austin, TX Office: 512-916-5834

Texas Senator John Cornyn
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-2934
Austin, TX Office: 512-469-6034

Florida Senator Bill Nelson
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-5274
Tallahassee, FL Office: 850-942-8415

Florida Senator Mel Martinez
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-3041
Orlando, FL Office: 407-254-2573

Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-5054
Jackson, MS Office: 601-965-4644

Mississippi Senator Roger F. Wicker
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-6253
Jackson, MS Office: 601-965-4644GA

Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-3521
Atlanta, GA Office: 770-763-9090GA

Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson
Washington, DC Office: 202-224-3643
Atlanta, GA Office: 770-661-0999

Louisiana FEMA Office Spokesman Manuel Broussard
(504) 762-2301


The Federal Emergency Managment Agency (FEMA) is evicting trailer residents in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, regardless of the fact that many of these citizens have no permanent housing. LJI has joined forces with Gulf Coast allies in calling for FEMA to FIX THIS MESS!

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.

Bishop Jenkins speaking to Byron Ragland, a trailer resident, at the press conference. Image courtesy of Shannon Bennett, Episcopal Diocese of LA

The Stories are Heartbreaking

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.

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