Houston Grumbles as Evacuees Stay Put

Miguel Bustillo, Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2006

Houston—Almost a year after Hurricane Katrina caused the country’s largest mass migration since the Dust Bowl, as many as 150,000 evacuees still live in this city, and increasingly many are indicating that they no longer plan to go home.

To many Houstonians, that’s overstaying the welcome.

Houston’s homicide rate has shot up 18% since the storm, and police statistics show that one in every five homicides in the city involves a Katrina evacuee as suspect, victim or both.

More than 30,000 evacuee families in Houston still live in government-subsidized housing, and a Zogby International survey sponsored by the city found that three-fourths of the adults receiving housing help were not working, raising questions about how they will survive when federal aid runs out.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Houston Mayor Bill White opened their doors to neighbors needing shelter in the nightmarish aftermath of the storm that devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast.

But privately, Texas leaders quickly began to fret that the bedraggled masses that accepted their invitation were overwhelming the state. In December, White declared that “Houston is full” after more than 250,000 evacuees, including hundreds of families rescued from the fetid Louisiana Superdome, filled the city’s housing to the brim.

White and other civic leaders remain committed to helping hurricane victims rebuild their lives, and become Texans if they choose. But in the crowded, apartment-lined neighborhoods here where most evacuees wound up, the famous Texas hospitality is wearing thin. Many residents are fed up with rising crime, and some are upset that evacuees could end up being a financial drain on the city.

“It’s time for them to go home,” said Victoria Palacios, the manager of an EZ Loan store in southwest Houston that has been held up four times in the last year, crimes she is convinced evacuees committed because of the distinct accents of the robbers. “Ever since they came here, we’ve been getting robbed.”

The challenges facing Houston as Katrina’s Aug. 29 anniversary draws near illustrate the lasting imprint that the storm left throughout the South. Estimates vary, but as many as half a million people remain scattered far from their former homes in Mississippi and Louisiana.

A Gallup Organization survey sponsored by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, due to be released soon, found that 251,000 evacuees still live in the state. Of adults, 59% were unemployed, and 54% were still receiving housing subsidies. Eighty-one percent were African American, and 61% of the households had earned less than $20,000 a year before Katrina.

Texas officials estimated that the state had housed as many as 400,000 evacuees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which lashed the Gulf Coast on Sept. 24.

The federal government is reimbursing much of the cost Texas is incurring, and last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would provide an additional $429 million in emergency funding.

But Texas officials are concerned that the lingering presence of so many needy people will strain services such as mental health programs, which are in high demand among still-traumatized evacuees.

In Houston, two-thirds of evacuees receiving housing assistance planned to stay, the Zogby Poll found. City leaders are planning for a future that assumes many of them will.

“People were waiting and hoping the situation would change in New Orleans, but many are realizing they may be here for a while,” said Cindy Gabriel, a spokeswoman for Houston’s Joint Hurricane Housing Task Force. “We’re looking at them as Houstonians at this point.”

Houston is considering adding two seats to the City Council to better represent the augmented population, which has surpassed 2.1 million people, according to some estimates.

Houston Police Chief Harold L. Hurtt is pushing to hire 400 additional officers to deal with the city’s evacuee-fueled crime wave.

In the meantime, police officers are routinely working overtime shifts to increase patrols on the city’s most dangerous streets.

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This year through Aug. 14, there have been 252 homicides in Houston, including 56 that involved Katrina evacuees. At the same point last year, there had been 194 homicides.

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While Houston struggles to assimilate the thousands of evacuees, New Orleans is realizing that it must persuade its people to come back if it has any chance of rebuilding into a major American city.

Many evacuees say they would love to return to New Orleans, but cannot imagine taking their families back to a moldering city where crime is out of control and affordable housing is hard to find.

Trying to challenge that perception, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin will visit Houston on Tuesday to make a pitch to evacuees that it is safe to come home. He is also visiting other cities around the country with large populations of New Orleans expatriates.

But for a growing number of evacuee families, such pleas come too late: New Orleans is already in their past.

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