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One Year On, Katrina Evacuees in Houston Face Unemployment, Lack of Health Care and Dwindling FEMA Assistance

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Over one hundred twenty thousand Katrina evacuees still live in Houston, Texas. A recent study shows ninety-eight percent are African American, three quarters earn less than $15,000 per year, almost half have no health insurance, and less than twenty percent are employed. Many could soon lose assistance from FEMA. Two organizers tell us how the community is responding. [includes rush transcript]

Democracy Now! is broadcasting from Houston, Texas where the effects of Hurricane Katrina are still being felt. Over one hundred twenty thousand Katrina evacuees still live in Houston.

Researchers at Rice University recently conducted a survey of over one thousand Katrina evacuees living in Houston. Ninety-eight percent of the respondents were African American. Nearly three quarters of the respondents indicated they earn less than $15,000 per year. Almost half have no health insurance.

Unemployment is a major problem. Of the respondents less than twenty percent are employed. Many could also soon lose assistance from FEMA. Organizers are sending out phone messages this week to warn evacuees that they could soon lose their aid. We speak with two guests here in Houston:

  • Carolyn Schexnayder, former New Orleans resident who evacuated to Houston six days after Hurricane Katrina hit. Her first days in Houston were spent in the Astrodome.
  • Broderick Bagert, senior organizer with the Metropolitan Organization, a Houston-based community organization of churches, schools, unions and other groups. The Metropolitan Organization is affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a grass-roots network founded by Saul Alinsky.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Organizers are sending out phone messages this week to warn evacuees they could soon lose their aid.

KATRINA HOUSING TASK FORCE: This is the Katrina Housing Task Force with an urgent message. October 31st is the last day FEMA has agreed to pay for your housing, unless you recertify.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, two guests join us in Houston: Carolyn Schexnayder is a former New Orleans resident who fled to Houston a year ago. Broderick Bagert is a senior organizer with the Metropolitan Organization, a Houston-based community group of churches, schools, unions, affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the grassroots network that was founded by Saul Alinsky. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us your story, and what’s happening today?

CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: For us, it started in the Astrodome, where we organized a leadership group under the direction of TMO.


CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: The Metropolitan Organization here in Houston, Texas. We were able to receive many victories at that time, and it included us being instrumental in having the cell phones — the service remain on. Also, a daycare program was set up for the children, and there were volunteers that helped them with arts and crafts and different things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you live in New Orleans?

CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: I lived in East New Orleans in the 7th Ward.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get out a year ago?

CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: I got out by a boat. And then —

AMY GOODMAN: From where your house was?

CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: Well, from a cousin’s house, and then got to Houston on a bus about 5:00 a.m. that Monday morning.

AMY GOODMAN: And ended up in the Astrodome.


AMY GOODMAN: How many people were there?


AMY GOODMAN: Thousands?

CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: Thousands. Thousands.

AMY GOODMAN: And are you planning to go back to New Orleans?

CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: Right now, I don’t have any plans, because I’m not in a position to plan. As you stated earlier, we don’t know from one day to the next just what we’re going to be doing and what benefits we’re going to have to try to set roots anywhere. The unemployment situation is really drastic, to the point of even discrimination. I, myself, can say that, because I’ve gone through many job referrals, even went on interviews, was quoted salaries and was never called back and was told, “Someone will get in touch with you during the course of the day.” And it never happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. Then we’re going to come back. We’re talking to Carolyn Schexnayder, former New Orleans resident. She has evacuated to [Houston]. And we’ll be joined by Broderick Bagert, who is with the Metropolitan Organization He is from New Orleans originally, moved here a few years ago, and now working with hurricane evacuees. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: In Houston, we’re talking about the number of evacuees who remain here from Hurricane Katrina and who could lose FEMA aid. You just heard the phone message that some evacuees have gotten. Our guests are Carolyn Schexnayder, she is a former New Orleans resident. And we’re joined by Broderick Bagert, senior organizer with the Metropolitan Organization. He lives here in Houston, but did live in New Orleans years ago. Can you talk about the main issues today that you are dealing with as an organizer, Broderick?

BRODERICK BAGERT: Well, the main issues we’re dealing with today is a mode of operating on the part of FEMA. FEMA’s theory of how people get back on their feet is that what they need is the maximum amount of anxiety and pressure for them to be sufficiently motivated to find housing and jobs. And since the month after the storm, when through the hard work and organizing of a whole leadership team from New Orleans that we started organizing in the Astrodome, we’ve been able to have housing in Houston. In fact, the largest and most successful public housing system set up in the shortest period of time was right here, under the — with a lot of organizing going on and the direction of some local political leaders.

But that has been counteracted by FEMA’s constant effort to set deadlines that are a month away and keep people under a constant state of pressure and anxiety, that they’re going to lose their housing. And that’s still going on. So far, we have been able to assure that the majority of evacuees haven’t lost their housing and haven’t been called ineligible by FEMA. FEMA has insane assumptions about who counts as eligible. So if you were in a household of eight members back home and half of that household went to Atlanta, say that it was cousins living with you, and half came to Houston, only one household member is eligible for FEMA assistance. If you lived in an apartment that is —

AMY GOODMAN: So they decide between the members of the family in Atlanta and the members in Houston?

BRODERICK BAGERT: Whoever happened to call in first is eligible for FEMA assistance. One head of household. That’s just one of a whole series of rigidly bureaucratic assumptions about how FEMA gives assistance. Another is that if your house or apartment is structurally sound back in New Orleans, then you are eligible and able to return, even if it doesn’t have electricity, even if the rent has doubled, even if someone else is living there. And so, it’s the kind of things we have fighting about.

AMY GOODMAN: How do they determine whether your house is adequate to return to, when it seems that in New Orleans they are not encouraging people to return, especially, for example, in the Lower Ninth Ward? In places like public housing, that were not flooded, they are not allowed to go back home even when they want to?

BRODERICK BAGERT: Well, it’s sort of a great mystery, and FEMA won’t tell anyone, citing privacy concerns. So they are very vague and unclear about how and why certain decisions are made. And no one really knows exactly what criterion are in place. All people know is they keep getting letters saying at the end of this month you’re going to be kicked out of housing, so that they can sufficiently motivate people. Now, the irony, of course, is that that keeps people in a constant state of anxiety and pressure, which is the opposite of what people need in order to get jobs, in order to start planning for the future.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a comment made by the former First Lady, Barbara Bush, last year. Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina hit, she toured the Astrodome in Houston and spoke with the radio show Marketplace.

BARBARA BUSH: What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is, they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, what the former First Lady said, “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here […] were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” Carolyn Schexnayder, your response?

CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: Well, a majority is true. A majority of us want to stay in Houston, because of the hospitality, some of it. And the other thing is they have opportunities that they’ve taken advantage of to help them get on their feet, to make — and received the information to make informed decisions as to how they’re going to plan their lives, you know, for their future and to maintain their livelihood.

On the other hand, a majority want to go back to New Orleans, because they — it was just the opposite. They run into some difficulties here and the stereotyping, that kind of thing that we’re just not accustomed to. And they’re wanting to go back home. So it’s a 50/50 situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you lose aid, FEMA aid?

CAROLYN SCHEXNAYDER: Eventually, I guess, I will. And what’s heartbreaking about that is that you have no control over this, that somebody else have your livelihood in their hands and can either drop the ball whenever they choose to, and you’re left standing with no recourse. There are programs available and resources available, but not all the time these resources are available when you need them. Our situations are immediate, situations of need. And, you know, we need those resources to be available. We appreciate everything that’s been done for us here in Texas, but the situation remains. And there’s still thousands of people who need help. They need assistance.

AMY GOODMAN: Broderick Bagert, looking at the big picture here with the people you’ve been organizing with, what do you think immediately needs to happen?

BRODERICK BAGERT: Well, our country knows how to handle this kind of situation. We do so every year with foreign political refugees. And so, if people are from a war-torn area and are registered as foreign political refugees, then they have guaranteed housing for up to 18 months, job placement, case management, people who are coming from incredibly difficult situations and who don’t speak English. And we do that for 50,000 to 100,000 people every year. We know how.

Now, unfortunately, that is not the program that’s been in place for our own citizens. And so, what needs to happen is to move to a resettlement model, where people are given the same benefits, the same rights, the same kind of support that have been proven to be successful for the program that exists under Health and Human Services, the federal government, for foreign political refugees. It’s a program that’s so successful that it’s invisible and seamless.

But FEMA is set up for a three-month disaster recovery model and has no capacity, has never had capacity, to deal with a disaster that doesn’t fit those sets of rules. So what we have been pushing for and organizing for is legislation at the federal level, first of all, just to make sure that people don’t lose housing, and in the medium to long-term, legislation at the federal level that creates this resettlement package for evacuees, where people are given guaranteed housing without this constant anxiety, job placement and job training programs, and healthcare, so that all the pieces are in place for people to gain sustainability and self-reliance. The majority of people who are here from New Orleans were employed back home: 67%. And now only 23% are employed, due in part to the kind of circumstances I’ve described, in part to some very direct and explicit discrimination around jobs that’s going on in the labor market right now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us: Broderick Bagert with the Metropolitan Organization, which is affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, he’s originally from New Orleans but has lived here for years; and Carolyn Schexnayder, former New Orleans resident living now here in Houston.

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