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Responders urge housing plan

As post-Katrina recovery evolves, federal officials are concerned that faith-based and voluntary groups could experience a wave of public criticism over expectations regarding housing.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 29, 2006

"I would love to see something that would bring together the general good will of people with some of the resources the government has to offer so they could work together to solve this problem."

—Gabe Roffman

As post-Katrina recovery evolves, federal officials are concerned that faith-based and voluntary groups could experience a wave of public criticism over expectations regarding housing.

"There seems to be a common - but erroneous - expectation in the Department of Homeland Security and in the upper reaches of FEMA, that faith-based and other voluntary agencies will be able to provide for the enormous housing needs that will emerge in February and March," said a federal employee who has been active in disaster response for many years.

Unfortunately that expectation is starting to leak out into the mainstream media, he added.

The result? "Voluntary agencies will be facing unfair criticism based on groundless expectations that the voluntary and regular local human services systems will be able to absorb these tens of thousands of households," concluded the federal official.

His colleague agreed: "I want to protect voluntary agencies," he said. "There appears to be some confusion about their role in terms of housing."

FEMA has set a Jan. 30 deadline for some 27,000 families in FEMA-funded hotel rooms to call for an authorization code to extend their stay. Still more hurricane survivors are relying on temporary direct leasing assistance, while others are staying with friends or relatives. Other forms of federal and state temporary housing assistance will become available - but some responders say the number of people who need homes will still be staggering.

More than 217,000 homes were so completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina that there is no possibility of repairing them. Hundreds of thousands of additional homes need major repairs before occupants can return.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood and several of his peers in the faith-based response community are trying to clear up budding misconceptions about housing. Hazelwood, the United Methodist Committee on Relief's executive secretary for U.S. response, helped land a $66 million FEMA contract for a large-scale case management effort administered by UMCOR.

"UMCOR continually gets calls from people who mistakenly understand - either from government sources or private sources - that voluntary or faith-based agencies will be the answer to the housing problem," he said. "I even had a FEMA field staff person tell me he had been given a mandate to have the voluntary sector find the housing solution for his area."

The $66 million grant - called "Katrina Aid Today" - clearly does not include a housing database or other housing locater component, though KAT field staff will refer hurricane survivors to other groups that handle housing, said Hazelwood.

"Housing is one component of holistic case management," he explained. "But as far as a solution for the national lack of affordable housing for hurricane survivors? That's not what we're about at all."

Faith-based response groups can and do build homes. It's a core mission of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), acknowledged Kevin King, executive coordinator of MDS. "We'll chip away at it. But in our 55-year history, we've never seen anything of this magnitude."

MDS has been able to triple its response, he said, "but we can't build back the Ninth Ward. We may be a few drops of water in that healing stream. Often that's what the role of faith-based organizations is. Our efforts are signposts of hope."

Other faith-based groups - particularly those partnering with Habitat for Humanity - will also build homes. And sometimes voluntary groups find themselves actively matching a hurricane survivor with a house. In Florida, responders are trying to find homes for thousands of families affected by Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 hurricanes. Interfaith groups have created partnerships with affordable housing experts within the state government, home builders associations and advocacy organizations.

But King, Hazelwood and many others in the long-term recovery community believe that, without some firm strategy put in place by the federal government, hurricane survivors are going to keep hopping from one band-aid temporary housing solution to the next.

In Louisiana, Randy Ewing believes that problem lies on FEMA's doorstep. "It has to be a FEMA approach or solution," said Ewing, CEO of the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, a nonprofit initiated by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

But Ewing doesn't exactly think FEMA should shoulder the burden alone.

"There is a role for us all to play to create a new model or paradigm," he said. "But as a nation we need to spend a little bit more - we need to be drawing down some money from HUD along with money from FEMA - and we need to put up communities that are attractive, and made up of manufactured or modular homes, not travel trailers."

Ewing and his colleagues are working on a proposal that will show the financial and social advantages of spending government money on a long-term housing solution for hurricane survivors. Until that happens, he said, the nonprofit world should not be expected to find or build homes on the massive scale that's needed. "We are headed for a train wreck if we try to accommodate housing," he said.

Meanwhile, the few nonprofits directly handling housing are plugging away at finding homes for hurricane survivors. Leaders of these organizations say the wait lists are long - and that it's increasingly obvious to them that the federal government has to step in more definitively that it has.

Gabe Roffman, program director of KatrinaHousing.org, said there was a wait list for affordable housing before the Katrina ever hit. "I would love to see something that would bring together the general good will of people with some of the resources the government has to offer so they could work together to solve this problem," he said.

Goodwill efforts on the part of apartment owners and others will last only so long, added Roffman. "There were a lot of apartment owners out there who were essentially willing to take a loss on their properties in order to offer housing. But that's not much of a long-term solution. It would be great if maybe the government could somehow offer some incentives for that. It would probably be cheaper than the hotel program they've been running."

But it would be difficult to operate such a program, acknowledged Roffman. "It would probably be really hard to administer and manage. I can't imagine, really. To really make that work for this size population, you'd have to be looking at doing that across the country."

KatrinaHousing.org is powered largely by volunteers from its partner organization, Katrina's Angels. Another Web site, Homes for Katrina, maintains a listing of housing resources but does not have direct contact with evacuees. FEMA also links a list of disaster housing resources by state to its Web site.

Conni Davis, a Katrina's Angel volunteer who works continually to find hurricane survivors a place to live, said survivors who try to go through current government channels - such as HUD - could be waiting well over a year for a home, if they get one at all.

The volunteers are often batted furiously between delayed housing offers and hurricane survivors who don't know where they'll live until they find a job.

"But this is how we have found a way to be helpful and not physically go there," said Davis, based in Arizona. "It is a ton of work and it's never-ending. Even if the government's going to back it - it's going to be never-ending."

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