Amid growing concern about the city’s homicide rate and overburdened social services, a new poll finds Houstonians increasingly weary and wary of the 150,000 Louisiana evacuees who landed here after fleeing Hurricane Katrina.
Three-quarters of Harris County residents surveyed by Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg say the influx of Katrina evacuees, many of whom remain seven months after landfall, has put a “considerable strain” on the Houston community.
Additionally, two-thirds say evacuees bear responsibility for “a major increase in violent crime,” and twice as many local residents believe Houston will be “worse off” rather than “better off” if most evacuees remain here permanently.
The preliminary results of Klineberg’s annual survey, which is expected to be finalized later this month, suggest that a sizable fraction of area residents have tired of their guests from New Orleans.
“These results reflect what I’m hearing from my constituents,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. “I think the percentage of people unhappy with the deadbeats from New Orleans would be larger but for the big hearts of Houstonians who want these folks to get back on their feet, as I do.”
Culberson said the sentiment is much stronger, at least in his district (which includes west Houston, the Texas Medical Center and much of western and northwestern Harris County). He said his constituents are concerned about rising crime and no longer want to house New Orleanians who choose to rely on social services.
“If they can work, but won’t work, ship ‘em back,” he said. “If they cause problems in the schools, if they commit crime, there ought to be a one-strike rule—ship ‘em back.”
Although Culberson said he has been trying to attach such a provision to pending legislation, it’s unclear how such an idea could be implemented.
“Whatever we want to do, these are American citizens, and they can stay here if they want,” said Eckels. “The difference is, when they’re here and they get into trouble, there are consequences. They put up with a lot of things in New Orleans that we don’t put up with here.”
Houston arguably had the most generous response to Katrina’s devastation. Largely because of White, and the need to empty evacuees from shelters and area hotels, Houston launched a federally reimbursed program to provide 12 months of apartment housing and utilities to anyone from an area affected by Katrina or Rita. About 80,000 Louisiana residents were housed by the program.
It became so popular that evacuees from Louisiana who initially landed elsewhere flocked to Houston. Just before Houston stopped enrolling evacuees in mid-December, three-quarters of applicants for the housing program had been in the area for three days or less.
Houston clearly still feels good about its initial generosity after the storm, when 60,000 residents flooded Reliant Park to help in any way they could, and the positive publicity it generated around the country. According to the survey, 97 percent of respondents agreed that Houston “really came together” to assist evacuees.
Klineberg has conducted his survey annually since 1982. He surveyed 765 Harris County residents in late February, and the results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
For the first time since 1999, he said, most people now say crime is the city’s biggest problem, topping such issues as traffic.
Additionally, there are more requests for public help from the medically uninsured and city health officials have added staff to deal with an increased number of sexually transmitted diseases attributed to evacuees.