Katrina's Aftermath

Housing uncertainty lingers

Katrina and Rita evacuee Robert Jones in his Austin apartment.
Katrina and Rita evacuee Robert Jones in his Austin apartment. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

This Friday was supposed to mark the end in Austin of the primary federal housing program keeping roofs over the heads of area hurricane evacuees. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's indirect public-assistance program, administered through the city's Office of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development since October, is now slated to continue here through July. That's probably the end of it, however – we say probably because nobody is ever quite sure what FEMA is going to decide next – because the approximate 745 evacuee families slated to lose their housing aid July 31 are the last ones in Austin still receiving indirect federal assistance.

As of June 1, 1,246 evacuee families in Austin had been found eligible for FEMA's newer individual assistance housing program, which bypasses local governments by sending rent money directly to evacuees or, if they choose, to their landlords. That will buy them at least a few more months, but what about the 524 evacuee families the city has record of FEMA having determined ineligible for more housing aid? Sam Wollard, associate director of the Community Action Network, a public-private collaboration of local organizations focused on community issues, said these evacuees will likely take a variety of paths. "Some folks will probably go back to Louisiana. What we don't know is how many," said Wollard, one of a number of speakers at a Town Hall meeting last Thursday about local evacuees' precarious housing situation. "What we're assuming right now is some people are going to end up in the homeless shelters. … We know that some will find alternative affordable [housing] options; some may move in with family or friends. But what's really unclear is how many are going to go where."

Thursday's meeting at Highland Park Baptist Church was co-sponsored and hosted by Foundation for the Homeless, which offices partially out of the church. A significant portion of the meeting focused on the cases of 247 families in Austin who find themselves in particularly shaky situations. According to evacuee case management data from several local social service providers, as of June 20, 103 of these 247 families had been denied further housing assistance by FEMA. The same case management stats also indicate that out of those 247 families, only 91 had a housing plan in place as of June 20 and that 82% of them were living below the federal poverty line, $19,350 for a family of four. As George Brown, a project coordinator with the Basic Needs Coalition of Central Texas, put it while going over the numbers, "This is a group that's in real jeopardy of being homeless."

Robert Jones, one of a handful of evacuees at the meeting, can testify to being in housing limbo. Not only was his New Orleans house flooded by Katrina, he also went through Hurricane Rita; his Katrina evacuation path ultimately led him to a FEMA-paid-for room at La Quinta Inn in Beaumont, just in time for Rita's storm, which brought him to another La Quinta – this time in Austin. "It's been a process of patience, patience, patience," said Jones, which might qualify as the understatement of the year.

He stayed at La Quinta in Austin until December, when he and his wife found an apartment, which FEMA covered for six months, until the end of May. Unfortunately, he was laid off at the temporary agency he worked for around the same time. The money Jones saved from his job, along with the little bit of Supplemental Security Income his wife collects because she suffers from seizures, enabled him to cover his June rent and bills; he said he's good for July as well but doesn't know beyond that. He hopes to have qualified by then for further FEMA housing assistance, for which he is in the process of applying. "Maybe in due time … I may be able to return to New Orleans," said Jones, who spent his 49th birthday last Monday trying to make the best of uncertainty.

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