Storm Troopers

Black people calling Phoenix the promised land? The Katrina evacuees in the Valley haven't been getting out enough

There are just so many easy and enjoyable ways to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina here in the Valley.

For a $30 donation to the American Red Cross Katrina Relief Fund, you can get a special Rolf's Makeover from popular Phoenix hair stylist and Good Morning Arizona standby Rolf Lohse at the Civic Plaza's Beauty and Health Expo.

Red Cross volunteer Mary Angulo-Cordova hugs Katrina evacuee Inez Lonzo.
Peter Scanlon
Red Cross volunteer Mary Angulo-Cordova hugs Katrina evacuee Inez Lonzo.
Jannah Scott (right) at the Arizona Day of Prayer and Remembrance at the State Capitol: "We need to keep an eye on what's happening with the folks."
Peter Scanlon
Jannah Scott (right) at the Arizona Day of Prayer and Remembrance at the State Capitol: "We need to keep an eye on what's happening with the folks."

By staying one night at the ritzy James Hotel in Scottsdale, 10 percent of your $329 room fare will go to Katrina relief and entitle you to a special "We Care" turndown amenity on your pillow -- which, according to the publicist for the hotel, could be anything from a James towel to a hat, flip-flops or bath products.

Any of the charity promotions being advertised by Valley merchants sound more attractive than the offer being extended on this Tuesday night to a group of hundreds of local churchgoers filling the seats of the giant Pilgrim Rest church.

"We need for people not to just take folks, as we've seen, and put them into apartments and say, 'I've done my good,'" says Jannah Scott, who was immediately thrown the massive task of organizing a citywide spiritual care network to keep tabs on the evacuees long after they've left the Coliseum.

"We need to really keep an eye on what's happening with the folks. We need to connect each of these people to someone who can say, 'I'm gonna walk along with you for the next year, until you and your family are back on your feet, and totally restored.'"

Although notice of tonight's meeting has gone out to church leaders of all faiths spread out across the Valley, the people who've shown up to sign their name to a roster pairing them with individual evacuees are overwhelmingly from the black community. Members of the downtown Baptist churches, the Muslims, Nation of Islam and Promise Keeper groups are heavily represented, and the presentation itself occasionally feels like an old-school Baptist prayer meeting.

"All right, touch your neighbor and say, 'This is nitty-gritty ministry right here!'" says Bishop Thomas, and everybody does just that. "Don't say you can do it and not show up!"

Scott reasons the black community has signed on to help the evacuees through the long haul because many of them can relate to being in "the lack of" situation the Gulf Coast transplants now find themselves in.

But after spending 10 days straight with the evacuees, Scott cautions that some of the things these people have been through -- not just since the hurricane, but throughout the generations of disenfranchised treatment they've endured as black, Southern poor -- will be shocking even to the elder black folk in the Phoenix community.

"If you want to see the impact of centuries of oppression, and centuries of racism, and centuries of keeping people out," Scott says, "you will see that among many of the brothers and sisters that we'll be serving in the days ahead. We have to be sensitive to the fact that this is not just another poor person. This is someone who's really been through some things."

Despite the public impression that our Katrina victims are being taken care of, the black community gathered at Pilgrim Rest on September 13 learns that many are leaving the Coliseum without establishing connections, on benefit packages set to run out soon.

Rita Story, a program director for the First Institutional Baptist Church enlisted to oversee housing and social services for the evacuees, takes the stand after Scott and presents a behind-the-scenes view of some of the arrangements the evacuees have been offered that no one's been reading in the papers.

"We had a lady who was offered a job at 19th Avenue and Thunderbird, and given a home for six months in Gilbert. And a bus pass," Story says, eliciting laughs from the crowd. "We had to tell her it's a pretty safe bet she wouldn't get to work unless she left the day before."

One by one, Story begins going through the massive stack of papers that have been given to each evacuee, giving the crowd a quick taste of all the paperwork the New Orleans transplants will have to attend to after the emergency shortcuts expire.

"Employers are being kind now," Story says, "but if they apply for another job, they may not have the same latitude they've been given so far." For some evacuees, the compassion that business has shown them as temporary residents of 1826 West McDowell is quickly running out. "People are already getting bills delivered to the Coliseum," says Story, to the sympathetic groans of the crowd.

The Phoenix bus passes each evacuee has been issued expire at the end of September, and almost all of them are here without cars. Many of them have been placed in apartments offering a special evacuees deal of three months' free rent. Will they be able to afford to stay where they are when those three months are up?

In addition, the essential state Department of Economic Security benefits the evacuees have been given -- like food stamps, cash assistance, unemployment insurance and family vouchers -- are good for only three months. After that, they'll need to re-apply -- and this time, they'll need to present all the paperwork and fees that were waived the first time around.

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