Desert Storm

Thousands of Katrina evacuees landed in Phoenix. How long should they get assistance?

"These people needed basic necessities. They didn't have clothes, food, or anything else," says Cox.

Widely broadcast reports of indiscriminate rapes and killings in New Orleans weren't proven false until a month later. So when the FEMA planes first arrived, critics across the country predicted that evacuees would trigger crime waves. That hasn't happened here. In fact, spokesmen for the Glendale and Phoenix police departments reported no problems with Katrina evacuees.

But ask people on the south side of town, and they'll tell you about "a little situation" at Tanner Manor. Yolanda McBride, manager at the senior-citizen facility located near 21st Street and Broadway Road, confirms that her complex took in three seniors — older men — after the storm. They helped to get the apartments furnished, and the men seemed happy to be there. Then came the rumors about the drugs, which neighbors said were purchased with FEMA money. So the undercover cops came in. They made no arrests, but the arrangement still didn't seem to be a good fit. After nearly five months, Tanner Manor asked the men to leave.

Greiana Marchand, 9, laughs as her aunt Kazanda Millon prepares a "po' boy" in Nelda Millon's kitchen in Glendale.
Peter Scanlon
Greiana Marchand, 9, laughs as her aunt Kazanda Millon prepares a "po' boy" in Nelda Millon's kitchen in Glendale.
Evacuees have not always been practical, says Debra Sheff from the Katrina Aid Project.
Peter Scanlon
Evacuees have not always been practical, says Debra Sheff from the Katrina Aid Project.

"It wasn't that bad, but their lifestyle was a little bit faster than the people here," says McBride.

Those few mischievous men aside, the best term to describe the FEMA evacuees in metro Phoenix may be "vulnerable," since a large number are disabled or elderly.

According to David Engelthaler, Arizona's state epidemiologist, of the evacuees who came through the clinic in the Coliseum, 23 percent suffered from hypertension, 9 percent from diabetes, and 7 percent from asthma. The mental-health needs were also high, nearing 10 percent. Those numbers are much higher than the norm, says Engelthaler, but he didn't find them surprising, because the evacuees came from poor — "underserved" — communities, where these chronic conditions are more common.

Most of the roughly 20 new households seeking Section 8 vouchers this month from the City of Phoenix's housing department are single and disabled or elderly, says Christine Chavira, an assistant housing supervisor for the department. They were all referred by Project Restore. Some have no income, a handful more have nothing to their name, Chavira says.

"Apparently, these are all folks that didn't do anything, who rode out the wave of benefits until they got to a big do-or-die date," she says. Are they the city's problem now? "We've got to do something with them," she adds with a sigh.

These applicants are running to Phoenix's housing department partly because Maricopa County's public-housing office no longer participates in the Disaster Voucher Program, which provides rental assistance for former public-housing residents displaced by the storm.

That was a judgment call by Alphonzo Patrick, head of the county's housing authority, who says that he cut off his organization's participation earlier this year, after most evacuees had found housing. Early on, he says, Maricopa County accepted 70 Katrina households in its Section 8 program and public-housing units. About half of them are still in the program.

Most are doing well, but a few are packing up and moving for the third or fourth time. Maybe the houses or the neighborhoods didn't feel right. Patrick doesn't know.

"I'm hoping they're not on tour," he quips.

Is there an ideal evacuee?

What is considered acceptable for an evacuee who is still receiving some assistance? Is he allowed to have a few too many drinks? What kind of jewelry can she wear? Can she decide to go to school, or does she have to get a job? On a special occasion, can an evacuee couple dress up and dine at a nice restaurant? Can an evacuee family rent an inflatable moonwalk for their child's birthday party?

That depends on the timing. Ten months ago, some extravagances may have seemed okay.

That's because, immediately after the hurricane, people viewed New Orleans evacuees as the "worthy poor," says Bill Quigley from the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic. In other words, the evacuees were needy, but it wasn't their fault, because they were victims of a natural disaster, he says. For a while, doors opened and contributions poured in.

"Now, in every place in this country, people from New Orleans are moving into the 'unworthy poor' category," he says.

Churches and sponsors were scrambling to help at first, says Jacquelyn Litt, the director of women's and gender studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who has been documenting the experiences of women evacuees. "Now the churches are out of money, and I don't know how many families are even in touch with their original 'friends,'" she says. "We're seeing this transition from a privileged status to 'you're just like everyone else who's poor.'"

Evacuees have not always been practical, says Debra Sheff from the Katrina Aid Project. For instance, she says, during the first few weeks after the hurricane, evacuee households in eight of the hardest-hit zip codes received two installments totaling $4,358 in FEMA money, earmarked as "expedited assistance" and "rental assistance" money.

The $2,000 in expedited disaster assistance came first and was intended for immediate needs like food and clothing. Next came $2,358, an amount carefully chosen to provide evacuees with three months of rental assistance at $786 a pop, according to FEMA spokesman James McIntyre. This was explained to some evacuees in person, says McIntyre. For evacuees who had the money direct-deposited into bank accounts, the parameters were outlined after the fact, through an affidavit sent by U.S. mail.

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