Theresa August spent the official closing day of the Renaissance Village trailer park singing, muttering to herself and dancing on a picnic table. Finally, wearing an infant’s flowered onesie on her head like a kerchief, she began to pack up.
August, 39, giggled on the steps of her overflowing trailer last Saturday as Sister Judith Brun asked when she might be able to leave the trailer park that, at its peak, housed almost 600 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Sunday? No response. Monday? A smile.
But by Monday, Brun, a nun who has been an almost constant presence during the park’s waning weeks, had learned that August’s destination was not, as the situation seemed to demand, a placement supervised by a professional caregiver, but an apartment in New Orleans found by a friend. Because it was clear to Brun that August was not capable of riding a bus and moving into the apartment on her own, as the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had planned, Brun decided to postpone the trip a day until she herself could take August, who has been known to wander off.
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
The closing of Renaissance Village, near Baton Rouge, and the other remaining FEMA parks represents the final chapter in one of the largest and most tumultuous efforts by the US federal government to provide emergency housing to a displaced population. Over the course of two years and nine months, FEMA put up 9,000 families in trailer parks scattered around the Gulf area, where residents endured cramped, inadequate and often poisonous conditions.
Many Louisiana residents shared a similar reaction to the announcement that the parks would close at the end of May: It’s about time. After all, more than 800 families had passed through Renaissance Village’s gates and managed to move on with their lives in their own homes. Why not the rest?
As residents like August make clear, that question has no simple answer. Those remaining are the hardest to help, posing the toughest test of the oft-repeated promise that the recovery from Hurricane Katrina would at least offer the opportunity to rectify the social ills the storm exposed.
PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Reason holds little sway over the residents of this microcosm. Some of those most in need have proved to be, out of pride or paranoia, the least likely to accept help. Those who under normal circumstances have little leverage have become the most demanding holdouts. Those ill-equipped for real-world survival cling with surprising tenacity to the place they have come to think of as home.
As the last day came and went, many of those left in the park (38 trailers full, by FEMA’s count) were exemplars of New Orleans’ most persistent problems before the storm: old, unhealthy, delusional, mentally challenged, addicted, illiterate, senile. They have bad credit, criminal records, exasperated relatives. They are often unreliable narrators of their own stories.
Though the government has failed these residents in many ways and for many years, in the final weeks ample assistance has been available — from gas money and food vouchers to utility deposits and hotel rooms, even for those technically ineligible for FEMA assistance. Catholic Charities has helped with furniture and deposits; the Capitol Area Alliance for the Homeless has offered rent subsidies for those who are ineligible. Brun has delivered groceries and arranged rides, sympathized and scolded, strategically dispensed small wads of cash to plug the gaps in the system.
Yet for all that, to follow the last residents as they are dragged toward self-sufficiency is to witness a clanging, screeching streetcar of human and bureaucratic limitations that seems to lurch backward as often as forward. On Tuesday, Brun and August arrived in New Orleans in a hired van, only to learn that there was no electricity, no mattress and no one to let them into the apartment.
They returned to Renaissance Village.
“The question I keep coming back to,” Brun said, “is why is there still so much need?”
FACING LIFE ON THEIR OWN
Alton Love, 41, rode his bicycle, back tire sagging, down a hot Baton Rouge street with his 9-year-old daughter on his handlebars, looking for the man to whom he had given his car two months before on a promise it would be fixed. He has not seen the car since.
LaTonya London, 24, was at home with four of her five children but no money, no car and no diapers.
Laura Hilton, 45, was clutching a lease for a four-bedroom home in New Orleans for US$1,650 a month. Her income, in the form of government disability payments, is US$1,600 a month.
These are scenes from the multiple stages of moving out and moving on. As the deadline loomed, the approximately 450 families still in the parks responded in different ways. Some finally opened the door when the FEMA workers knocked, or boarded a van hired by Brun to hunt for apartments. Others broke down in tears, became entangled in delusional schemes or did nothing, passively waiting for one level of government to hand them off to another. FEMA officials said they would not forcibly remove those who remained.
FEMA, which ultimately is a disaster-response agency, not a social service department, endured years of blistering criticism for its failure to understand that many New Orleans residents needed more than just a roof over their heads after the hurricane. The agency now is quick to admit that other agencies are better equipped to handle persistent social ills. Its job in cases like that of August, FEMA officials say, is limited to getting her housed.
Still, in its awkward fashion, the agency designed a gradual transition for residents from the parks and government care, offering an intermediate step of a 30-day hotel stay. After residents spent their first month in an apartment, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would kick in, paying the full rent until March 1, 2009.
But each phase presents an opportunity for failure as well as success. What happens to those in hotels who still have not found housing at the end of 30 days? What happens to those who, come March, are in apartments too expensive to afford on their own? What about those who, for various reasons, are already ineligible for rental assistance?
At least 30 families or individuals living in Renaissance Village in its final weeks fell into the last category: Love because he could not account for the US$800 FEMA gave him for rental assistance right after the storm; London because she opted to leave after her boyfriend, whose criminal record includes arrests for burglary and drug possession with intent to distribute, was banned from the park; Hilton, who can barely read, because FEMA was unable to verify her pre-storm address.
CONCERNS ABOUT THE FUTURE
London, who eventually moved to a US$900-a-month house subsidized by the Homeless Alliance, acknowledged how easy it would have been to stay in the trailer park and remain dependent.
“Being in that trailer, having all that stuff, it was like we became crippled,” she said. “You had free rent; you didn’t have to worry about light bills.” Before the storm, she said, “I was being independent. Now I feel like I’m leaning — I’m leaning.”
Hilton wanted to move her sons, George, 17, and Roy, 10, back to New Orleans because her daughter and grandchildren live there. Through the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, a rent subsidy could be arranged, but Brun, who has focused her efforts on keeping the ineligibles off the streets, is concerned about what will happen when the subsidies expire.
“OK, you can’t sign this lease,” she told Hilton, who stared at the ground, which was littered with beer cans. “You can’t afford this, you’re going to wind up getting evicted, then you’re going to be homeless.”
Hilton wailed, “I’m already homeless!”
Brun said, “You’re going to move to a place that costs more than you get a month, does that make any sense?”
Hilton had no good answer. When Brun walked away, Hilton sighed. “Makes you want to drink,” she said.
HOPING FOR KINDNESS
There are some families that have been literally riven in the course of the park’s closing. Right after the storm, Joseph Griffin and his girlfriend, Sherryl Harris, lived in a trailer with Griffin’s sons, Jamal and Jermaine. The boys worked with the art therapists who came periodically to the park, and Jermaine was selected for a scholarship to Idyllwild Arts summer camp in California.
Now Jermaine, 16, has left home and school, and is staying with another family in Kenner, outside New Orleans, where he has a job at Dairy Queen. Jamal, 13, is staying with his grandmother in Baton Rouge. Harris is getting her own place.
Not every case seems as difficult, however. Gloria Martin, 51, was prescribed psychiatric medication after the storm for, she said, “hearing voices.” When the medication was stolen, she began to get arrested — once for standing in the middle of the road at night, another time for getting into a fight at the food stamp office. She lost her FEMA eligibility when she went to prison.
But Brun’s team found her a place at Connections for Life, a yearlong program in Baton Rouge for female ex-offenders. On move-in day, Martin moved like a person in shock. One week later, she was radiant, cheerfully working at the Connections for Life thrift store, where she helped a one-eyed man find window shades.
“I had never had nothing like this happen to me before,” she said. “A free apartment and a job, free clothes and shoes, and eating good. And sleeping good.”
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