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TX faces housing deadline

Many Katrina survivors who evacuated to Austin are facing a looming housing deadline.

BY HEATHER MOYER | AUSTIN, Texas | July 21, 2006

"Many elderly folks will have no place to stay."

—Rev. Roy Jones

Many Katrina survivors who evacuated to Austin are facing a looming housing deadline. On July 31, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will stop paying continued rental assistance for many families.

"We have a lot of folks who are going to be forced to find a new place to live, and they have no resources to do that," said the Rev. Amy Elder, executive director of Texas Interfaith/Interagency Disaster Response (TIDR). "We remain concerned about what kind of numbers we're dealing with here in this problem."

Elder said as many as 6,000 people evacuated to Austin from New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit.

"We're trying to pull together the number that will be affected by this next deadline, but I have one illustrative number I can give," she explained. "I'm dealing now with one apartment complex that's given notice to 22 families. That's just one complex."

Austin lacks affordable housing, she added, especially Section 8 housing for which families whose income does not reach median standards in Austin can receive subsidized rental assistance.

TIDR is a coalition of non-profits, churches and social service agencies helping in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Elder said all the organizations meet weekly to discuss the case management and share information.

The agencies all see another major problem for the affected families as well: if they can move somewhere else, how will they pay for the move? Many are elderly and/or disabled and cannot work. Even those who can work are having a hard time, said Elder.

"People have to move, but they have no way to move their belongings. I know one man who had been in his apartment but then lost his assistance. He had to leave. He had a good job but it was so new that he didn't have enough money to continue paying for his apartment. When he was forced out, he didn't have anywhere to put all the donated furniture he received. When he moved out, he lost what furniture he had. If he's able to get an apartment again, now he'll have no furniture."

Elder said TIDR agencies are helping the families maneuver the challenging and confusing system of paperwork required in the process. She said sometimes the housing problem is just an issue of paperwork, so if the case workers can be both an educated helper and an advocate for the families - that's what they will do.

Community Action Development Assistance (CADA) is one of TIDR's member agencies. The agency is run by volunteers from Austin's New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. "Many elderly folks will have no place to stay, so we're trying to identify them and get them some help," said the Rev. Roy Jones, CADA's director and pastor of New Hope. "Others don't have any transportation of their own, so they can't move their belongings."

Jones said another lingering problem for the Katrina and Rita families is finding a good job. "If you don't have transportation, you also don't have a job," he said. "Austin is not centered about public transit. There's not a lot of major transportation here."

So the TIDR agencies discuss what can be done each week during the case manager meetings. "We go over the latest information, new FEMA decisions, what the City of Austin is doing, if there's a new legal appeal regarding housing, counseling, how to secure Medicare or Medicaid, or whatever issue - we just go down the list."

Both Jones and Elder said they worry the city's residents have forgotten about the needs of the Katrina and Rita survivors. "I think there's a growing sense of apathy," said Jones. "Some people may be thinking that these families should just get over it. But to lose your community, your house, relatives, church and more, well, it takes more than a year to get through that process. Many communities are unsympathetic to that, they don't understand the process."

The two also agreed that the City of Austin government has been excellent, but that there are still ways the public can help. People can donate their time and vehicles to help families move, or donate money to help hire moving companies. Elder said she wants to find a way to reengage the city's congregations in the recovery process because hurricane survivors living there can be invisible.

"People just look like people. You can't see inside and see that people are really going through crises, you know, if they're wondering where they'll sleep the next night and get the resources they need."

Jones echoed that sentiment, adding that some hurricane survivors just need someone to talk to.

"The main thing is spending time with people." He added that his volunteers work a lot on the 'after-care' by checking in on families who may be more settled than others at this point. "We call them to see how they're doing and if they need anything else."

Those check-ins and caring conversations are especially needed now that the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is approaching. The grieving continues.

"The involved agencies are worried about the mental state of the survivors. I'm not a mental health worker, but I think we all see some post-traumatic stress. It's the daily stress of not knowing where you will lay your head tomorrow for some. It's a very disconcerting period of time."

CADA runs youth camps which include the children of Hurricane Katrina. Monitoring their mental health is just as important, Jones noted. "We've got some with mental problems, but they're beginning to settle down. We take them out, they play with other kids, we have mentors for them and more. Those activities help take their mind off just sitting at home. Developing a sense of community for them with other kids is important."

The mental health and stress levels of the case managers and disaster responders are also being monitored. After TIDR's weekly meeting is a support group. "It's available to all our caregivers, volunteer or paid," Elder said. "It's free personal counseling. We also have mental health organizations that will to go to the caregivers themselves to talk because of busy schedules."

Jones and Elder will stick with the recovery for as long as needed, with both saying they know it will continue for some time. Elder said that even though it's not been a smooth process all the time, everyone involved is committed to the recovery.

"It's not always two steps forward, so we keep struggling with that and moving forward in the best way that we can. Sometimes we have to step sideways, but it's all leading forward."

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