Houston cares for thousands

Three months after thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors streamed into Texas, social service agencies in Houston have found workloads remaining high.

BY HEATHER MOYER | HOUSTON, Texas | December 2, 2005

"Now that's it getting colder, we're seeing some folks become more desperate."

—Rev. G. Todd Williams

Three months after thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors streamed into Texas, social service agencies in Houston have found workloads remaining high.

Many Katrina survivors are now setting up their homes and lives within the Houston area, and local agencies are working to make the transition as smooth as possible.

At the Second Mile Mission, the number of families asking for assistance has increased substantially over the agency's usual workload.

"We're still very busy," said Karen Parker of Second Mile Mission. "Forty percent of our clients are hurricane victims, and we've incorporated them into our normal services."

Parker said Second Mile is helping Katrina families find housing and employment, as well as supplying them with food, clothing, furniture and other basic supplies. She said they have helped at least 500 Katrina survivors find local jobs.

Now firmly within the holiday season, Second Mile also has numerous Katrina families within its Christmas program. "The Christmas program is designed to give families the gifts of giving and receiving," said Parker. "Families come in and have their picture taken. Then the kids get to pick out gifts for their parents and wrap them. The parents select toys for the kids and wrap them. Then they take it all home so they can celebrate Christmas like they normally would."

She added that anything Second Mile can do to help take a little of the stress away during the season is beneficial.

"The families are already battling holiday stress," she explained. "All the emotions coming with that - being separated from other family members, that's a part of it. Many don't know if they'll be able to provide for their families. They're looking for long-term housing in an already tight real estate market. That adds stress to anyone's normal holiday."

Other local agencies are seeing the stress amongst the survivors as well. David Meeker-Williams, executive director of Shalom Zone Ministries, said some survivors he's been chatting with since September are now admitting some problems they're having.

"They're having trouble sleeping," said Meeker-Williams, whose Shalom Zone Ministries is a part of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

"Early on they were defiant; they were saying they were fine. Now they're much more willing to say that this is really hard and that they have some psychological scars here that aren't going away."

He compared to the emotions to those of the grief process. "My sense is that early on it was like how one acts after you lose someone - you do what's necessary to get by for a few weeks, you run energy and put your head down to get stuff done. People ask how you're doing and check on you. But then there comes a time when that's done and people don't call you anymore and you see that people are gone. I think it's becoming like that for these people. They know that life will never be like it was. That's just starting to set in for some people, and you know they're hurting."

Meeker-Williams has also been active with Houston's The Metropolitan Organization - which is helping local Katrina survivors keep their needs in the public spotlight.

Meanwhile, another need to be kept in the spotlight is the increasing youth homeless population, said the Rev. G. Todd Williams of New Covenant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Williams' church regularly helps homeless youth, and when Katrina struck, even more homeless young people appeared on the streets of Houston after evacuating from New Orleans and other spots along the Gulf Coast. Now with the weather turning colder, the need to help is increasing even more.

"The shelters remain full here and that's been difficult," said Williams. "Now that's it getting colder, we're seeing some folks become more desperate. With the holidays coming up, we always end up seeing more kids on the street anyway. And those who have been living on the streets tend to come in to us more and say, 'I want to go home.'"

New Covenant has helped five times more kids get back home this year than they did during 2004. "So far this year we've put 81 kids on buses from Houston back to their homes or to be reconciled with friends or family or something like that," said Williams. "That's a huge jump for us."

He added that his church could not have done that much work without the help of many churches from within the city and around the country. Donations and volunteers have poured in since September - both of which have helped them distribute hygiene kits, sweatshirts, jackets and more. More than 400 volunteers have given in excess of 3,000 volunteer hours helping the homeless youth.

But help will still be needed weeks and months from now. Williams worries about what will happen when the federal deadline is up for evacuees to move out of hotel rooms. He also worries about the emotional state and the vulnerability of those young people he tries to help.

"We are seeing a lot of sadness in the youth. We know that statistic - if we don't get someone off the street within three or four days, the chances of them getting into the sex industry or drugs or something else dramatically increases. Some of these kids have now been out here for months. I hear stories of kids stealing food at this point. When we try to help or try to make options available for them - we find that the skills are not there for many of the kids. They don't have the skills to make decisions to help themselves because they're still children. Many didn't have adults or parents to provide direction or the opportunity for good decision-making skills."

He added that the job market within the city is very tight, and it's harder for kids to apply when they don't have a phone number or address. The same goes for finding housing. Williams said there is little low-income housing in the city, and without a credit history, references or work verification, the youth cannot find a home.

How can people help out? "Money is always a good thing," said Williams, who noted that they use money to buy bus tokens for kids. "We always need volunteers. Always, always. Hygiene kits are also important. Some churches sent those during Katrina and (Hurricane) Rita, and they're perfect. It doesn't take a lot to put those together."

For families who are transitioning into a new life in Houston, another city agency is helping make that transition smoother. The Neighbors 2 Neighbors program of Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston (IMGH) has taken off since its creation back in September, said one agency representative.

"It's very successful," said Lou Keels, communications manager for IMGH. "We have 20 congregations from all different faith backgrounds involved."

The program allows faith communities to adopt families and help them settle into the community by teaching them "the ropes" of living in Houston. Those "ropes" include helping people find their local grocery store, learn the city's transportation system, or even learn to navigate the many highways around the city.

"Those from New Orleans only had one interstate, we have 20," laughed Keels. Keels said Katrina families appreciate having a local link, even if it's just that they need to talk to someone. The program has even gotten successful enough that some congregations adopted an entire hotel or apartment complex of Katrina families - which Keel said is a great way to impact an entire population in need.

"We're finding that once people are being moved into permanent housing, that's when they want to reach out to the community for help."

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