Faith coalitions aid evacuees
Churches, mosques, and synagogues have stepped forward to provide Katrina evacuees the kind of assistance that government can't.
The day before hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Daniel and Pamela Gillard evacuated to Dry Creek, La. They stayed there for a month, unable to check on the home they'd left behind. Then hurricane Rita took dead aim at the shelter where they were staying, so they headed northeast - all the way to Boston.Skip to next paragraph
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Like more than 500 other Gulf Coast "guests" who are still here, the couple has lived in a hotel while sorting out their future. With a huge sigh of relief, they are moving this week into affordable housing in nearby Newton, Mass.
Amid the uncertainty and complications, the Gillards have relied on their faith and on the Coalition of the Caring - religious congregations working alongside government and community agencies to help evacuees get a fresh start.
"The churches have been wonderful - they've stepped up to the plate for people who've wanted that help, spiritually and otherwise," says Ms. Gillard.
In Boston and other metropolitan areas, coalitions of faith groups have formed to give emotional, spiritual, and practical support to evacuees confronted with immediate needs for housing, jobs, healthcare, and schools for their children. As on the Gulf Coast, religious groups are responding in ways that government cannot. MassFaithHelps, formed for that purpose, is working with 120 families. It has matched 50 of them with congregations committed to providing a guide for the family and to assist in various ways for six to 12 months.
"It's meeting the needs of people where they are," says Jackie Maloney, a guide at Bethel AME Church in Boston. "Taking them to find doctors, to shop for school supplies, dishes, furniture; helping musicians find replacement instruments."
Congregations also meet some needs directly. "One church in Plymouth held a shower for a family to help decorate their home. Someone else donated a car and paid the insurance for one year," says Kalya Hamlett, who coordinates MassFaithHelps. Congregations that can't provide a guide make donations of clothes, gift cards, or household items, she adds.
A donation of $1,800 enabled a family to go back South, rent a U-Haul, and bring stored belongings here, says Claire Kuschak, director of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, a permanent urban-suburban network of 70 faith communities that is working with MassFaithHelps.
In Atlanta, the Standing Together Coalition (STC) formed with the same mission. More than 34,500 Gulf households fled to Georgia, most to the capital. Many have no idea if or when they can return home.
"At least 300 congregations have signed up to be 'point people' for Katrina relief," says Ethel Ware Carter, associate director of the Regional Council of Churches, which coordinates the effort.
Given the transportation difficulties that evacuees face, the coalition has brought together resources into one location, at Grace Methodist Church. Here evacuees can find housing and job advice, social services, and access to a nurse. STC also hopes to help with income-tax filing.
When they came to Boston, the Gillards got help first from Children's Services in Roxbury, a private agency designated by the government as the contact for evacuees, and the lead agency in the Coalition for the Caring. They attend Morning Star Baptist Church, "which has embraced us," Pamela says.
The coalition tie has meant a lot as the couple dealt with difficulties related to home and jobs. Their house is salvageable, but they've faced delays and problems with the insurance company. Daniel works in maintenance at Tulane University and Pamela is 18 months from retiring as a medical clerk with the Defense Department. She'll lose her job if she doesn't return immediately, but they don't want to live in a tent, as some friends now do. Her efforts to get a transfer haven't borne fruit.