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Posted: 2/12/2006 11:36:22 AM EDT
Hotel exodus begins Monday
State opens shelters for possible 2,000
February 12, 2006
Gwen Filosa
Staff writer
www.nola.com/news/t-p/metro/index.ssf?/base/news-13/1139731281155110.xml
Having spent more than $542 million on hotel rooms for hurricane victims since September, the federal government will start closing down the program Monday by scratching 12,000 families left homeless by the storms off the hotel reimbursement rolls.

While Louisiana leaders open emergency shelters to brace for a homeless crisis of as many as 2,000 families, 88 percent of the 12,000 households have lined up continuing federal rental assistance, FEMA officials said Saturday.

"This is not a surprise," said Libby Turner, head of FEMA's transitional housing unit. "People have been notified many times over the past month or so. Emergency sheltering help is not the type of assistance needed for a family's long-term recovery."

Of the 12,000 families, 10,500 have continued federal aid, Turner said, while 1,100 additional families were deemed ineligible for FEMA help, including some who should not have been on the program in the first place.

Those who were homeless before Katrina will be referred to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The HUD toll-free number is (866) 373-9509.

Brittany Brown, 21, staying on the 13th floor of the New Orleans Crowne Plaza hotel, a floor packed with storm victims, was on her way out the door Saturday. She and her husband have moved from hotel to hotel, while waiting for their FEMA trailer to arrive. They want to park the trailer in front of their ruined home so that they can begin rebuilding.

With the Monday deadline looming, she turned to FEMA asking for rent assistance. Brown was told it would take two weeks to review her case, leaving her without a trailer, without an apartment and soon without a hotel room. She plans to move into her sister's house -- along with her husband, uncle and two children. It will bring her sister's two-bedroom household to 10 people.

9,000 in hotels

Nationwide, FEMA has maintained a recent average of 20,000 hotel rooms on its assistance list. In Louisiana, some 9,000 households remained in hotel rooms as of Friday.

FEMA did not provide specific numbers Saturday to pinpoint exactly where the hotel exodus will have the greatest impact. But Louisiana's Department of Social Services expects some 2,000 families to leave the hotel program Monday.

On Monday, 12,000 hotel "authorization codes" -- one code per room good for FEMA reimbursement -- expire. Evacuees may choose to stay in their hotel rooms, either paying the bill themselves or using their FEMA rental assistance.

"If people decide to stay in a hotel room, that's their decision," Turner said.

The "emergency housing" program, which put families in hotel rooms for five months, must end so that those displaced in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita can find proper homes, FEMA officials said.

From providing apartment locator guides to referrals to public housing, FEMA said it is not neglecting those in need of housing -- just slowly but surely switching gears and getting out of the hotel business.

"We will continue to work with those folks who need it for as long as they need it," Turner said. "But we have to take those next steps. It is not the equivalent of eviction. Many people will move into longer-term housing. Some may choose to stay in the hotel. This is simply about the billing of rooms. FEMA will no longer be subsidizing those rooms."

An additional 8,000 FEMA-paid hotel rooms holding hurricane evacuees will expire March 1, the day after Mardi Gras, Turner said.

That's because in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, the hotel rooms are paid for past the Monday deadline, a federal judge decided recently, so as to not leave business owners in the lurch right before the region's largest tourist attraction.

Evacuees living in hotels, those who correctly obtained authorization codes from FEMA, have been given at least two weeks' notice before the cutoff, Turner added.

Program criticized

From its inception, the FEMA hotel housing program was widely criticized as both a waste of money and an empty promise for displaced families. FEMA inherited the program from the American Red Cross, but has always footed the bill. At its peak, the hotel program booked 85,000 rooms for a single night in September for hurricane victims.

Louisiana plans to have three emergency housing shelters open this week.

At week's end on Friday, the Louisiana Department of Social Services was readying a shelter in Alexandria and finding a location for another in New Orleans.

The state's shelter in Shreveport took in 10 families last week, state officials said, after FEMA cut off payments to about 900 hotel rooms in Louisiana in cases where the evacuees did not obtain a FEMA authorization code to extend their stays. Those 10 families may stay at the shelter for one month while searching for more permanent housing.

Families in need of shelter may call the state hotline, (866) 310-7617, to arrange transportation.

FEMA has been scaling back the hotel room program under terms of a federal court order won in December by evacuee advocates. The lawsuit claimed that FEMA's treatment of hurricane evacuees violated the federal law that created the agency.

But one of the attorneys who handled the case said there will be no effort to ask U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval, who issued the order, for any further relief for affected evacuees.

"I think we've probably pushed the limit of what it is that a court can order them to do, as compared to what they should be doing," said Daniel Greenberg, whose New York City law firm helped handle the case.

"But for us, people would not have been in hotels as long as they were," Greenberg said. "This is just one more of the tragedies that happen when FEMA is more concerned about its pocketbook and fraud than it is for evacuees."
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