THE WAITING GAME: LOCAL KATRINA
EVACUEES STRUGGLE TO FIND HOUSING

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Six months after Hurricane Katrina brought close to 5,000 evacuees to the New York area, many are still struggling to find permanent housing before March 1, when their hotel subsidies are set to expire.

The evacuees, who live in seven hotels spread throughout Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, have been working with caseworkers from local nonprofits to find affordable housing. Many have already been placed: Out of roughly 368 total households, 279 have moved out of the hotels and into permanent housing in New York or elsewhere, according to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). But what about the rest?

Some of them say the ever-changing deadlines and bureaucratic restrictions set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are keeping them from moving on with their lives. Others may be stuck due to unemployment, depression or bad credit. Regardless, many say they are tired of waiting.

“I drag my children around everywhere with me,” said Tia Nicholas, 23, staying at the Ramada Hotel near Shea Stadium. “I don’t trust strangers taking care of my kids.” Blayr, 4, and Layla, 1, accompanied their mother on apartment hunts and on occasional modeling gigs she got through a New York agency.

Despite a hefty check from FEMA, she hasn’t yet found an affordable apartment, though her deadline was recently extended of March 6. “The cost of living in New York is so high,” said Nicholas, who was a security guard in New Orleans. “I want a nice and safe place for my family.”

According to FEMA, each household should receive $2,358 every three months to pay rent costs for up to 18 months. According to FEMA spokesperson Bruce Brodoff, the deadlines are intended to “enourage evacuees” and “weed out” fraudulent cases. Most evacuees have received between $4,000 and $6,000, he said.

But some don’t qualify for aid. Brandon Pellerin, a 23-year-old swing dancer, lived with his father and grandfather in New Orleans. Pellerin applied for rental assistance six months ago, but FEMA rejected his application because it had already approved one for his grandfather, who moved to Texas after the hurricane. Pellerin, who paid rent to his grandfather, was not a documented tenant.

“Rental assistances goes to the head of the household,” said Brodoff. Adults who seek rental assistance separately from their household members will probably not be approved, he said.

That makes no sense to Pellerin. “I want to build my life in New York,” he said.

So does Adah Hann, a performance artist who lived in New Orleans for 16 years. She received $4,000 in rental assistance, but has already spent it on living costs incurred during the past few months. And while she’s been looking for a job, she said she feels overwhelmed by the constant threat of looming deadlines.

“It is hard to focus on finding work when letters from the hotel management warn of eviction every two weeks,” said Hann. Evacuees are also required to recertify every three months with FEMA for continued assistance.

Hann had some conveniences at the hotel—a microwave and a small fridge—but still feels out of sorts. “I can make a hotel room feel like home,” she said, but “I cannot lead a normal life.”

Hann’s complaints are common among evacuees, many of whom also struggled with poverty in New Orleans.

Maryanne Schretzman, deputy commissioner of policy and planning at DHS, discussed the problem at a recent panel on homelessness, noting that most families had already found homes. “Many who are now left are folks who also had some issues before the hurricane,” she said, “mental health and substance abuse issues.”

Brenda Stokely, a member of NYC Solidarity Committee for Katrina/Rita Evacuees, is wary of that argument because, she said, it doesn’t take into account the emotional impact of the experience. “Imagine if you are displaced 3,000 miles away from your home, in a city you do not know, and you have to ask for money from people who don’t like you,” said Stokely. “It’s really hard for these people to get back on their feet.”

With the hotels located in three different boroughs, she said, it’s also difficult to mobilize evacuees for political action. While roughly 28 Radisson tenants convened on the steps of City Hall earlier this month, other hotels were barely represented.

Her organization is advising evacuees not to move out of the hotels, as is Legal Aid Society. “FEMA is supposed to pay for the needs of evacuees,” said Judith Goldiner, staff attorney at Legal Aid. “Evacuees have tenants’ rights at this point.”

—Kamelia Angelova