"It was made so sunshiny and nice on television," says Thomas, 52, a disabled woman who is currently receiving services from Arizona Long Term Care. "Janet Napolitano reassuring us these people are being taken care of, saying, 'We can reach out and help as many victims as they will send us.'"
What she didn't see on TV, and what Thomas only learned from her ALTC case manager a week ago, was that some of the Katrina evacuees were being placed in the very same apartments many of the Valley's disabled and elderly have been on a waiting list to get into for, in some cases, the past three to five years.
"I don't begrudge the Katrina victims that came here," says Thomas, who says she donated $30 to the Red Cross's Katrina fund out of her own dwindling savings. "But why do they need to take away the housing that had been set aside for the aged and disabled in our own state?"
Like many disabled residents facing both mounting medical needs and diminishing financial resources, Thomas has been trying to get into one of a handful of HUD's Section 202 assisted living apartments, specially equipped with things like roll-in showers for wheelchairs and a hospital-sanitary environment -- perfect for Thomas, who suffers from a laundry list of ailments relating to chemical sensitivity and a depleted immune system -- and subsidized by HUD to make them affordable to people on fixed incomes.
The assisted living properties, like HUD's standard Section 8 dwellings, typically require residents to pay only 30% of their adjusted income per month for rent. Unfortunately for the Valley's disabled, the waiting list for such properties is currently among the longest in the nation -- an average of 48 months, according to a 2004 U.S. Conference of Mayors report on homelessness. Only Chicago, Trenton, New Jersey, and Miami are higher.
Thomas says she was set to move into Tempe's disabled-friendly Broadway Apartments at the end of October, at which time the lease on her current no-longer-affordable apartment near South Mountain expires, when she heard through her case manager that all of the Valley's assisted-living housing was being snatched up by the Katrina evacuees relocated to Phoenix.
That's not entirely true, says Ricardo Gerakos, acting director of HUD's Phoenix offices. While HUD-subsidized apartment owners have been directed by a federal declaration to move all FEMA-certified disaster victims to the top of their waiting lists, Gerakos says, "The evacuees can only be given preference over prospective tenants on a waiting list as long as they meet all the eligibility requirements themselves" -- meaning that to get into a place like the Broadway Apartments, they would first have to be judged as disabled as Thomas to bump her down on the list.
Furthermore, says Jeff Gray of the Arizona Department of Housing, most of the evacuees have already been placed in housing outside of HUD's subsidized properties.
"From what I understand, there have been very few Katrina evacuees who have qualified for those [assisted living Section 202 properties]," Gray says. He estimates his department has helped roughly 278 evacuee households with placement in some form of housing, and says only 11 of those have been in a Section 8 type property -- even fewer in assisted living.
An employee at the Broadway Apartments, which typically has a one-to-two-year waiting list for its units, says they've yet to place a single Katrina evacuee, and adds that Thomas herself has never finished completing the paperwork to be officially on their list -- although they're certainly aware that she and her case worker have been calling dibs on a unit for quite some time.
"She's a germaphobic, and she will not come into the office to complete the papers," says the employee, who asked that her name not be used. Nevertheless, she fears Thomas is a "difficult case" whom "everybody and their brother will hear from" if Thomas learns of a Katrina evacuee getting in before her -- a definite possibility.
"If the people from the hurricane qualify for housing, we're required to give them immediate preference over everybody else on the list."
Most of the officials working to house the evacuees are counting on the compassion of locals who are waiting on any of the HUD properties to move them to step aside and let the hurricane victims go first.
"It's human nature, if you're on a waiting list and you get bumped, to cry foul," says Gerakos. "But we're hoping everyone realizes this is an emergency."
Thomas, however, is convinced her own situation will soon become an emergency, too.
Due to vacate her current $975-per-month apartment on October 31 and faced with less than $300 in her savings, Thomas worries she'll be out on the street if she can't find an assisted-living property.
She has a mother in her seventies with her own health issues and a 23-year-old son. Although each has offered to take her in, neither has the space.
"My son's got a studio apartment, and says he'll sleep on the patio," Thomas says.
But without her own physical address, Thomas says both her ALTC care and the $143 per month she receives in food stamps will stop.
"I will not survive one week on the street, and I cannot live in a shelter," she says. Thomas says she has enough trouble right now just coping with the pesticides and barbecue fumes around her current apartment building.
"The politicians are treating us like a bunch of matchsticks," she says. "And they arbitrarily make decisions based on how few matchsticks are going to need to be tossed aside . . . I'm not going to be a matchstick."