Katrina evacuees struggle to exit hotels

Frustrations build as FEMA nudges the hurricane's diaspora to move to long-term housing.

Every morning, Kemberly Samuels gets up and scans the apartment listings. Since hurricane Katrina swamped her New Orleans home, her family has been living in a hotel in Houston.

It's cramped and uncomfortable and not where they want to be, but every attempt at finding an apartment has ended in frustration. In fact, Ms. Samuels and the roughly 150,000 other evacuees still living in hotels across the country are becoming increasingly fed up with the roadblocks to a more permanent living situation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it is doing its best to facilitate the process, and points to recent efforts to have everyone moved out of hotels and into rental properties by Dec. 1.

The agency extended that deadline when evacuees, surprised by notices slipped under their doors, began to publicly fret about forced evictions when the hotel vouchers ran out. Most now have until Jan. 7.

This tug over temporary housing is the latest wrinkle in the lives of more than a quarter of a million displaced people that are trying to start over in new cities. Three months after the storm, many are still looking for jobs, a home, and some measure of stability.

A recent survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, shows that a third of Katrina evacuees who have not returned home remain jobless. In Houston, more than 15,000 are still living out of hotel rooms.

These numbers reveal just how difficult the transition has been, experts say.

"It's becoming increasingly clear that there isn't going to be anything [in New Orleans] for anyone to go back to for a long time," says Ronald Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former Housing and Urban Development official. "And evacuees are finding it much harder than they expected to start new lives elsewhere - especially with no mobility, no jobs, and no possessions. And now they are being asked to find apartments in strange neighborhoods."

Dr. Utt agrees that moving evacuees into apartments instead of hotels is the right goal (apartments provide better access to schools, public transportation, and jobs), but questions the timing during the holidays.

At a recent Houston rally, Rep. Al Green (D) of Texas was among those protesting the Dec. 1 deadline out in front of a local FEMA office. While he praised FEMA for extending the deadline more than a month, he says the program should not be one-size-fits-all.

"What is reasonable is flexibility," says Mr. Green, who was among 13 members of the Texas delegation to protest the deadline.

FEMA's concern has long been that hotels are substantially more expensive than other forms of housing. The agency is spending an average of more than $2,000 per hotel room per month - far more than most apartments or even homes.

Officials stress that while they are working hurriedly to get evacuees into more long-term housing, no one will be evicted from their hotel room, no matter the deadline.

In Houston, where some of the largest numbers of evacuees have settled, a special program was established to handle the housing crisis.

More than 90,000 evacuees have been moved into apartments under the city service, which gives evacuees a 12-month housing voucher. Houston pays for the rent and utilities and is then reimbursed by FEMA.

But the federal agency recently announced that it will stop funding the program as of March 1, 2006, leaving many who signed year-long leases in limbo and forcing others to find rare three-month leases.

While Houston Mayor Bill White has publicly questioned these latest decisions, FEMA says its goal is to move from a housing system arranged by local governments to one where evacuees apply directly to the federal agency for assistance.

Even so, evacuees like Samuels say many of Houston's remaining apartments are in questionable neighborhoods, are roach and rodent infested, or are simply not accepting the city vouchers.

She estimates she has seen 80 apartments in the past few months, and is growing discouraged - especially since she, her husband, and grown daughter are sharing the same small hotel room.

The threesome take turns sleeping on the one double bed. "And even that is difficult," says the former Ninth Ward resident. "I'm a queen-sized lady sleeping on a double bed."

Still, she says, she is grateful for the recent deadline extension because many apartment building personnel have been telling her they will have open units after the first of the year.

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