Oprah Winfrey and Jon Bon Jovi ‘Secretly’ Built Entire Communities for Hurricane Katrina Families in Houston and Louisiana
Chris White, Daily Mail, August 12, 2019
The residents of Angel Lane will forever be grateful to Oprah Winfrey for saving their lives.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans 14 years ago, the world’s most famous TV host paid for a community to be built for ‘refugees’, who had made their way to Houston and were living in temporary shelters.
Her friend Matthew McConaughey helped out, auctioning off his beloved 1971 Chevy Stingray Corvette for $61,000 and coming down to Angel Lane to build a playground with a team of volunteers.
Out of hundreds of applicants, Winfrey’s team handpicked 65 families for the newly built homes and were known as ‘Oprah’s Angels’.
She wasn’t the only one to make a difference to Katrina victims without hugging the media spotlight. Jon Bon Jovi created a boulevard of housing in his name in the city of Houma, 60 miles outside New Orleans. Former NBA great Kevin Garnett did the same in the city of Jackson, Mississippi.
While Brad Pitt’s Make It Right charity has received most of the news coverage for trying to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward — the worst-hit area after the Mississippi River’s levees were breached in June 2005 — Winfrey’s influence has been just as significant, but rarely talked about.
Pitt’s charity has been accused of deserting residents who bought properties built by his NGO, which are now allegedly falling apart and making homeowners ill.
DailyMail.com visited some of the areas financed by celebrities to find out how successful these communities of New Orleans refugees have been.
While Winfrey is still an angel to virtually all in the tiny Houston suburb she set up 14 miles from downtown, there are still residents who are discontented and, in some cases, feel discarded by the TV star.
Most residents of Angel Lane had been living in cramped temporary apartments when they spotted a newspaper advertisement about a new housing project being built by the Houston branch of the charity Habitat for Humanity.
The housing NGO worked alongside Winfrey on the scheme, but kept her name secret.
Potential residents went for interviews and were told the conditions: They had to have earned under a certain threshold when they lived in New Orleans, can give over 300 hours of their time to help build their new home and pledge to pay the $400-a-month interest-free mortgage.
In return, they would get a two or three-bedroom house, fully-furnished from the air-conditioning to even a full set of clothes in some cases.
The chosen residents then attended an introductory meeting at a local school where Winfrey surprised them on stage, a moment resident Patricia McGinnis will never forget.
‘We were sat waiting and she came out on the stage, and the place went crazy, we didn’t have an inkling. She talked and prayed with us. She said: ”Everybody in here is going to get a house, up to 50 people”, but it was actually 65 houses,’ says the 74-year-old.
‘I saw her personally afterwards and thanked her. ”It was one of my dreams to meet you, but I never thought it’d be under this circumstance, God works in mysterious ways, it was a pleasure, but I’m grateful for you,” I said.
‘I still love Oprah, through her, my prayers were answered. She didn’t have to do what she did, only through the kindness of her heart.’
McGinnis had to be begged by her daughter Jamie to leave her dilapidated New Orleans home in the poor Westbank neighborhood.
‘I didn’t believe it [Katrina] was going to be that bad, I needed some convincing from Jamie. We had just a dollar and a few cents, we couldn’t buy food. People were very nice helping us,’ she says.
‘It took 20 years for me to get a decent place to live and here I am. The house I moved out of had no air conditioning, holes in the floors, cardboard on the windows, the more rat poison you put down, the more you had to kill.
‘I felt like God gave me the house, I asked and prayed for somewhere decent to live – cool in the summer, warm in the winter – and now it’s up to me to keep hold of it.’
While the ageless McGinnis rides her bike everywhere and never locks her door, she does agree that the area has changed.
Repairs have been necessary on the properties — every resident we spoke to complained they’d had to replace the original and expensive hot water system.
McGinnis’ next-door neighbor Coleen Walters hasn’t had hot water or air-conditioning for years and has recently been struggling with ill-health.
Some residents have sold or had their houses repossessed as they struggled to find jobs. According to another resident Shaka Picot there’s a stigma in Houston of coming from New Orleans, adding: ‘They wouldn’t hire you, they thought you were gangsters.’
Other residents fled as they couldn’t afford the repairs and Habitat for Humanity wouldn’t do them for free.
McGinnis adds: ‘If anyone lost the house, then they choose not to pay for it, as we got an interest-free mortgage. It’s a blessing. Why wouldn’t you try to pay it?
‘If you needed something fixed, they had a company, but you still had to pay something. You can’t expect to get it for nothing.
‘They furnished the house, but I’ve put new furniture in, repainted, put a new air conditioning unit in. I stayed here for two years without hot water, I had to take a bath using water from the stove. But we’ve been here since 2006, what do you expect?’
Picot, 42, holds a different view. He arrived with nothing, along with his wife Linda, 41, and says the residents and Winfrey were misled by Habitat for Humanity. He believes that Winfrey wanted to hand out the houses for free and was disappointed in how the project finished. Since they’ve been built, no one has ever seen Winfrey or McConaughey. The actor’s playground was razed to the ground after a few years — some blame the NGO, others say it was a problem with drug-taking youths making it a no-go zone.
Picot adds: ‘We appreciated everything was done for us, Oprah getting the money and the charity together, but when someone’s life is uprooted, then you shouldn’t ask for anything.
‘We had good jobs — my wife was a nurse and I’m a Class A construction worker, it was difficult for me to get a job where they want to pay you for it. Some families found it hard to get continuous work, there would be people who don’t like you because you’re from New Orleans.
‘I think Oprah gave a load of money and I think she was upset over what came out of it with Houston Habitat. I’d give these houses a B and I think Oprah was expecting A grade too. There were other promises like we’d get some cars and other things.
‘I don’t know if she knew that we were going to be charged a mortgage. She thought that they’d just be given the keys, that’s real charity.
‘Matthew McConaughey did the same thing, he said he wanted to give us this [for free] — where is the equipment that he bought? They [Habitat for Humanity] took it away.
‘Everyone thinks we got these houses for free, that’s how it was presented on TV, but we still had to buy it.’
But he has sympathy for the stars for taking on these housing projects, saying: ‘I feel sorry for the person who fronts the money, they’re the one who’ll catch the blame.
‘Someone like Brad, Oprah, Matthew, it’s a no-win situation. They front up the money to build these houses. I’ve done the figures for what she had to pay to deliver 65 houses, so thank you Oprah.’
A community center finally arrived in 2014 after years of promising, but no one seems that enthused about it.
McGinnis says the people running it have changed ‘too many times’ and another resident Tammy Cloud believes they don’t do enough family-orientated events or education-focused courses for kids.
Cloud, 48, agrees with Picot that Winfrey didn’t think the housing was up to scratch. She was the first ever resident to move in with her son Adios, 28, and daughter Ashley, 27, after fleeing her home in New Orleans, which ended up 18-feet deep in flood water.
She says: ‘We were on the front row, she came out and told us that we were going to be given homes, then Houston Habitat said we don’t give anything away, we give a ”step up”. She said we would not pay, she said she’d come back, both never happened.
Cloud also alleges, with no evidence, that some houses were looted by Houston Habitat for Humanity workers charged with building and furnishing the properties.
‘I think she was unhappy with the project, they were taking a lot of the money and doing what they want, I think she was disappointed. They were stealing supplies, when some of the houses got built, they were fully furnished, they – employees working at Habitat — were taking stuff from the houses. I know at least one who got fired,’ Cloud adds.
Her stepfather Joey Rideau points out signs on a couple of gardens, where companies are offering houses for rent, saying no credit needed, it’s not solely for New Orleanians anymore.
He says some original Angel Lane residents have either sold their homes, lost their homes as they didn’t pay the mortgage, or are making money from squashing up to five families into three-bedroom properties.
‘We now have renters rather than homeowners. They’re selling out to this company with these yellow signs and charging higher rents, $1,900 a month, they’re having four or five families move in. We complain to the housing association, but who is there to complain to now?
Cloud adds: ‘They graffiti everywhere, draw penises on people’s houses. I said to my husband that the neighborhood is going to sh*t. It’s going to trash.’
‘The park was closed as you were scared that you’d get stabbed by a needle. They needed a security guard. The community center could have had some educational thing for the kids, something after school, we barely use it.
‘A lot of people are frustrated with Oprah as she didn’t ever come back.’
Despite the complaints, our aerial images show the difference between Oprah’s Houston houses and Make It Right’s efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
Oprah’s are still in reasonable shape and no one has complained of any major constructional flaws. While most residents just swept up or knocked in the odd nail to help build their properties — understandably as they had no housing experience — builder Picot had a direct influence on his property.
‘They let us help with the build, when I saw it, they used all the right code, I didn’t see any problem with it’, he says.
‘But the ones in New Orleans weren’t up to code. Then you’re asking someone to pay a mortgage on it? I’d be taking someone to court. I’ve got rotten wood and mold. I’ve been sold a lemon.’
When approached, Houston Habitat for Humanity executive director Allison Hay gave a statement, saying: ‘Houston Habitat for Humanity was honored to build homes on Angel Lane for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. We built 66 homes there, providing a hand up for families during this time of great need.
‘It was inspirational for us then and it inspires us now as we continue to build safe, affordable homes for people who need them. Everyone deserves the opportunity for a better future.’
Meanwhile, it appears the celebrity, who got it most right was Jon Bon Jovi with a big helping hand from Winfrey herself. He donated most of the money to create Bon Jovi Blvd, in Houma, Louisiana, which was built and is still maintained by Bayou Area’s Habitat for Humanity.
Unlike their colleagues in Houston, they’ve remained closely connected to the residents and also Winfrey and Bon Jovi.
The pristine street of large, well-kept houses with manicured gardens seems like proof that it’s been mostly successful, with the Jon Bon Jovi playground being actively used.
Family services and volunteer coordinator Michelle Miller has worked for the charity since 2004 and says the application process was the same as Angel Lane, but the founders have remained hands on.
‘They were both very hands on with the families and getting them in place. Oprah had her staff come down and they stayed for months and were involved in the application process. She had her own contractors and interior decorators come in.
‘Jon came in to get the house structure in place and came down for the giving of the keys to the homeowners. These houses were primarily money from Jon Bon Jovi. It was 28 houses. They did just one side of the street that you see today.
‘It’s mostly the same families now. A lot of the families were in evacuation housing at the university and came with nothing.
‘As part of the program, they helped build them. 350 hours for a single applicant, 450 for a couple. They couldn’t be that hands-on as Oprah had a lot of contractors and interior decorators come in, which is a step up from what Habitat would normally do.
‘I still have personal contact with Jon and Oprah’s staff, who call me periodically just to make sure everything is alright. Her staff have been very active, they sent her decorator from the TV show to do it all personally.’
Instead of just handing homeowners the keys and saying goodbye, the NGO encouraged them to go on financial courses, as for some it was virgin territory.
‘I’ve been here from start to end, some of the people had never crossed past New Orleans, it was a challenge for them. Some had never seen a snake or a cow,’ says Miller.
‘We gave them an interest-free mortgage, they were furnished to a toothbrush to a microwave to a bed. But it’s the responsibility of the house owner to maintain it after then.
‘We try to instill in them that they are a homeowner. You have to stick to the mortgage, we encourage them to go to first owner and maintenance courses, you have to learn how to handle situations, you’re not a renter, no one will change your light bulb.’
Executive director Edwin Charles also talks about the quality of their aftercare, especially compared to the complaints of Pitt’s Make It Right homes, who have been accused of not repairing fundamental problems such as rotting wood and collapsing roofs.
He says: ‘We do have a guarantee with our homes, flooring is ten years, certain things have a year or two warranties.
‘The planning for Make It Right was none at all. They just started there, had a whole bunch of people doing things, quick, fast with cheap materials. There are codes and standards for that.’
If a property becomes abandoned or misused, the NGO will take it back and give it a complete makeover, with the help of an army of volunteers who come from as far as universities in Ontario. They keep three houses free as a HQ for the volunteers and supplies.
Construction supervisor David Franklin adds: ‘Some people don’t treat the houses right, they don’t appreciate it, so they get kicked out. They don’t care, they get brought up living a certain way, it’s normal to them, but that could happen anywhere.
‘I can guarantee the quality of these houses for years. This is their opportunity, we’ve given them a home.’
DailyMail.com reached out to Oprah’s representative, who did not respond to its request for comment.
[Editor’s Note: The original story includes photos of the communities.]