Katrina Evacuees Falling Through Housing Cracks

Federal and city aid maze difficult to navigate

They may not be living on the streets, but the thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in temporary housing setups throughout the U.S. are essentially homeless, living month to month and hand to mouth in hotels, apartments, and other locales they can hardly call home. U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson was reminded of this Saturday at the Austin Public Housing Authority when he addressed a meeting full of Texas public housing leaders, as well as a small number of Katrina evacuees. New Orleans homeowner Cherlyn Fulton echoed the distress of many evacuees when she told Jackson about trying to apply for 18 months of rent assistance through HUD's much-touted Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program and being turned away. Because she wasn't homeless, living in public housing, a Section 8 voucher holder, or receiving some other form of HUD assistance before the hurricane hit, she was told she didn't qualify for federal housing aid. "They just gave us a little assistance and they just threw us away," Fulton later told the Chronicle, referring to $2,358 in aid she initially received from FEMA. All evacuees who apply receive some form of basic, initial assistance from FEMA, as well as the Red Cross.

A press release announcing Jackson's visit said he would be "on hand to provide details on HUD's transitional housing plan for Hurricane Katrina evacuees." He didn't do much of that, but he did say that Washington will reimburse local governments for the mounting administrative and housing costs incurred helping evacuees. About $2.5 billion of an approximate $17 billion in supplemental funds approved by Congress Oct. 28 will go to cities for community development, he said. Details weren't provided. As Paul Hilgers, director of Austin's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, diplomatically put it, "We're still unclear how those resources are going to be made available."

The city is paying the rent, for six months, of all Katrina evacuees who came out of the Austin Convention Center, as Fulton did. Housing and Community Development estimates more than 1,300 Katrina evacuee families were placed throughout Central Texas, largely in apartments, from the convention center. The Austin Public Housing Authority has issued an additional 170 housing vouchers to Katrina evacuees, said Lisa Garcia, vice president of assisted housing.

Jackson acknowledged Saturday that the Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program has left a lot of people out. And HUD spokesman Jerry Brown said the federal government is looking at a proposal for opening the program up so that more people will be eligible for 18 months of FEMA rental assistance. Fulton was told Tuesday that she might qualify for a single-family, Real Estate Owned property, one that is owned by HUD as a result of a previous foreclosure. Such properties are being used to house evacuees in several states rent-free for 18 months, and Fulton could be in one of them by the end of the month, Brown said.

Fulton, however, is just one of thousands of Katrina evacuees living in Central Texas, and not many of them are likely to get the opportunity to gripe personally to the secretary of HUD about their precarious living situation. "The bottom line here is we've got people in serious need," said Hilgers, noting that Austin and its neighbors' evacuee housing challenges have only begun. "The city has done a lot in the short term … but this disaster response is going to be [evaluated] in the long term, not the short term."

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Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson, Cherlyn Fulton, Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program, FEMA, Red Cross, Paul Hilgers, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, Austin Convention Center, Austin Public Housing Authority, Lisa Garcia, Jerry Brown

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