In Katrina’s Aftermath, Still a Struggle to Help

In Katrina’s Aftermath, Still a Struggle to Help
December 29, 2009
The New York Times

NEW ORLEANS — When Renaissance Village, the vast trailer park that housed Hurricane Katrina evacuees outside Baton Rouge, was closing down in May 2008, Theresa August was one of the last to leave. Babbling, singing and wearing a baby’s onesie on her head, she had to be coaxed into packing up the clothes and trash that crammed the trailer she called home.

Now, Ms. August, 40, lives in a small apartment in New Orleans that she decorated with flowers and Christmas lights. A team of social workers ensures that she takes her anti-psychosis medication and gets treatment for H.I.V. infection. Still shy and fettered by a speech impediment, she can carry on conversations far more coherently than at any other time since the storm.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it nowhere,” she said. “But I have.”

If any group of people could be said to have been the most shattered by Hurricane Katrina, it was those who were left in Renaissance Village and other temporary housing when the Federal Emergency Management Agency began to phase out housing aid almost three years after the storm.

They were among the region’s poorest people before the storm hit in August 2005, their lives once supported in New Orleans by a dense web of family ties and familiarity. Many were elderly, sick, addicted, mentally ill or otherwise disabled, unskilled or uneducated, and traumatized. Their children were behind in school or acting out. The storm was initially hailed as an opportunity to give them a better life, but as time progressed, thousands of families disappeared into the yawning gaps in government aid.

Now, more than four years after the flood, their lives have achieved only a fragile equilibrium, with many of them still turning to private agencies for help as their government aid expires. Some have transferred to permanent government programs that pay for housing, but continue to face obstacles to self-sufficiency like clinical depression or declining health.

Those who have succeeded have provided a valuable lesson to social workers in the region, one that they say the federal government has been slow to learn: it is not enough simply to give money, or rent vouchers, to people unable to strategize for themselves. Those who have achieved the most stability, like Ms. August, have had the most sustained kind of attention: caseworkers who make house calls, counseling, transportation, gentle encouragement and tough love. That kind of care has been the exception, not the rule.

Federal agencies spent more than $200 million on case management for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but often did little follow-up work.

“It’s easier just to throw money at people and then after a year cut them off,” said Toni Bankston, a psychologist at Neighbor’s Keeper, a nonprofit group in Baton Rouge that works with the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless to provide comprehensive assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Neighbor’s Keeper itself was making little progress with many of its clients, said Sister Judith Brun, a nun who runs the organization, until it added mental health care to its services.

“If nothing else,” Sister Judith said, “we have a very sharp insight into what has to happen to help the helpless who’ve been uprooted. You’ve got to be a mentor and almost a parent at times.”

Her agency creates a highly personal system of accountability for each client: one unemployable woman gets an allowance, but must volunteer at a soup kitchen; a client who is giving up drugs or alcohol might, despite Sister Judith’s reluctance, be provided with cigarettes. In cases where the smallest obstacle could spell failure, Neighbor’s Keeper has been on hand with bus passes, phone cards or school uniforms. In contrast, FEMA paid for families to stay in hotels for months with little contact.

Because it has not encouraged deeper involvement by caseworkers, Sister Judith said, “the federal government has gotten a very poor return on their investment.”

In many cases, the hurricane simply piled new difficulties on top of problems that existed before, making recovery more challenging to assess. Laura Hilton, a barely literate mother of three, is now securely housed in a New Orleans duplex, under the same supportive housing program as Ms. August. But Ms. Hilton’s 12-year-old son, Roy, remains far below his grade level in reading.

School officials take Roy to the doctor, fill his prescription to combat attention deficit disorder, and give him his medication, but they say their efforts are less effective because he does not take the drugs on weekends or holidays. Still, Roy attends school regularly and has built relationships there. He sometimes asks Charlita Hayes, the special-education coordinator, to let him see a photocopy of the driver’s license of his father, who was murdered after the storm, which she keeps safe for him in her desk.

Alton Love, a single father in Baton Rouge, was hospitalized in 2008 with advanced diabetes that he did not know he had. When he found a new job driving a van this summer and went for a physical, he said, the doctor revoked his commercial driver’s license because his disease was so severe.

Doris Fountain, 68, is finally back in her repaired home in New Orleans and regularly visits a local center for older Americans. But when asked about the storm and the cancer that killed her husband less than two years later, she bursts into tears.

Jermaine Howard, 16, missed three years of school. But after intervention from Neighbor’s Keeper, he is living with an older cousin in Baton Rouge, performing with his church’s dance troupe and has caught up to grade level. Now it is his younger brother who is truant. Neighbor’s Keeper is working to place him in an alternative school.

What is clear, from these stories and others, is that the storm is still raging. Of the 30,000 families receiving temporary rental assistance in February, 12,500 qualified for permanent federal housing vouchers, while the rest were cut off because they did not need further help or did not qualify.

Dozens of those families have called Neighbor’s Keeper in Baton Rouge or UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a homeless-services provider, in desperation. For those clients, the months spent on the rent program, Sister Judith said, had been a wasted opportunity for federal caseworkers to help them move toward greater self-sufficiency.

Matthew Bailey, 44, fell behind on his $420 monthly rent shortly after his disaster-housing subsidy ended in September. He has a head injury, and his garbage-strewn apartment is a cube of unbearable stench. He makes a tiny income from odd jobs like caring for pets. Neighbor’s Keeper will help him apply for disability payments, a process that can take more than a year.

Sister Judith questioned why his federal caseworker, whom Mr. Bailey said he had not seen since shortly after moving into the apartment, had not begun the application process for him.

“Matthew could have been a settled, lawn-mowing, dog-walking citizen,” she said.
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