The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

For Motel-bound Katrina Survivors, FEMA Help Still Elusive

by Michelle Chen

As national attention turns away from those left homeless by the Gulf Coast catastrohpes, people stranded in temporary housing are fighting for every morsel of federal assistance.

Dec. 23, 2005 – This year, Leonora Bartley’s holiday wish list is a simple one. Months after Hurricane Katrina drove her from Gretna, Louisiana to St. Antonio, Texas, she hopes the Federal Emergency Management Agency will finally deliver the help it promised.

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As Christmas approaches and she enters through the middle of her pregnancy, a deadline looms. Within weeks, she must move out of the cramped motel room where she has been living with her 8-year-old son for about two months. Since shortly after the hurricane, however, her application for the FEMA assistance – which she needs to secure permanent housing – has been "pending."

"I left a house, a job, stability and a lifestyle," she said in a telephone interview from her room. "Now… Mother Nature has taken all of that from me, and FEMA’s not holding up their end of the bargain."

Bartley’s motel room is part of FEMA’s massive Short-Term Lodging Program, established after Hurricane Katrina to shelter survivors as they transition into permanent homes. According to FEMA’s latest tallies, the program is still funding about 37,000 hotel rooms around the country. Texas alone hosts nearly 9,500 FEMA-booked rooms.

To help people resettle, FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development offer temporary housing assistance, set at roughly $800 per month to reflect the national average market rent. But Bartley, like thousands of other applicants, has yet to receive any money from FEMA, aside from payment for the motel room. She estimates that she has been to the FEMA office about 20 or 30 times, and after each visit, she said, "I leave just as deflated as when I went in there."

Blasting FEMA’s managing of the hotel program as “notoriously erratic and numbingly insensitive,” the district judge directed the Agency to push back the date on which it will cease paying for rented rooms while it deals with some 80,000 pending applications for assistance.

On December 12, Bartley got her biggest break since the disaster. It came, however, not from FEMA but from Louisiana Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. Blasting FEMA’s managing of the hotel program as "notoriously erratic and numbingly insensitive," the district judge directed the Agency to push back the date on which it will cease paying for rented rooms while it deals with some 80,000 pending applications for assistance. Duval also ordered FEMA to address inadequacies in public information efforts for the application process.

Bartley was one of 25 named plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, which was litigated by public-interest lawyers on behalf of all hurricane survivors who have applied or will apply for housing assistance and have faced various problems in the application process. The complaint charged that FEMA was pushing people toward homelessness by failing to provide needed assistance while attempting to terminate hotel subsidies prematurely.

Under the court order, FEMA must continue its hotel program in all states at least through January 7, extended from a previous deadline of December 15, and people still going through the application process may continue the program up to February 7. The court’s ruling also anticipated further litigation to establish a firmer timetable for dealing with backlogged applications.

The plaintiffs said an unresponsive bureaucracy posed a major obstacle to housing relief.

The plaintiffs said an unresponsive bureaucracy posed a major obstacle to housing relief. One plaintiff, New Orleans evacuee Chris Davis, reported that after months of phone calls and paperwork, he was still stranded in a motel, waiting for a FEMA inspector to visit his home to verify the damage. He had recently been notified that "no inspector yet had been assigned to his particular area."

In addition to complaints of general insensitivity to the needs of survivors, the plaintiffs also criticized FEMA for inadequate public outreach. For instance, the complaint stated that FEMA was illegally denying applications because applicants had not also applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA), though this is not actually a prerequisite for assistance.

Many survivors were reportedly also unaware that the rental-assistance payments were intended only for housing and that those seeking to continue their assistance were expected to provide housing rental receipts. For survivors who spent their initial grants on basic expenses like food and clothing, the plaintiffs argued, FEMA had not explained how to make a special appeal for continued assistance.

In a press release, FEMA announced it would comply immediately with the injunction and that its "goals and those of this ruling are very much the same." FEMA has not made any major changes to its policies, but said it would "make sure no one is asked to make a transition to longer-term housing before receiving the tools to do so."

Howard Godnick, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said that while FEMA’s official policies might be sound, "the folks in the field have different information, or are at least disseminating different information. And when you’re talking about people’s lives, to me, that’s inexcusable."

Even for those receiving FEMA assistance, low-income housing advocates say that with less than $800 a month, survivors often face tremendous difficulty securing housing or covering rent. According to a survey published in November by the Texas Apartment Association, of about 50,000 Texas apartments housing over 150,000 evacuees, an estimated 28 percent were at risk of eviction because they were not paying rent. The organization, which represents Texas housing providers, recommended a more comprehensive system. Suggestions include a direct-payment housing voucher program to provide greater financial stability.

Time constraints compound inadequate housing resources for the displaced. Under FEMA’s court order, once they begin receiving assistance, or are officially denied assistance, applicants have fifteen days to vacate their hotel rooms. But Bartley, who struggles just to pay for food and her son’s school supplies, said two weeks "is not enough time for anybody to find a decent place to live."

For now, the court order has bought survivors like Bartley extra time, but little security. She said that she has not yet found adequate housing that would be affordable in the long-term. Since FEMA assistance expires after eighteen months, she noted, Bartley doubts it would last as long as it takes to become economically self-sufficient. She wants to enroll in job training in Houston, but fears she would face the same housing issues. And though she has been looking for work in St. Antonio, she remarked, "Who’s going to hire me when I’m already pregnant?"

In her view, since she has been working and paying taxes all her adult life, she deserves a little more help in especially hard times. "I’m not asking for nothing that’s not really due me," Bartley said. "Help me get the housing that I need to provide for my two children; ’cause I was making it in Louisiana before, without any help. And it’s not fair."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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