Thursday, June 14, 2007


I have been trying to help a 60 year old man who lost his apartment-life-home as a result of the storm and flooding in the Upper 9th Ward. He lost everything he owned, including important forms of identification.

It was after some time of watching me around his neighborhood that he seemed to make an assessment - I could be trusted and relied upon after-which he came to me and asked me to help him. He told me he had a FEMA number and that he wanted to file a FEMA request for rental assistance. As this story proceeds, try and hold the word request in the fore of your consciousness....

I gave him my cell phone to call FEMA. After sometime on the phone, he seemed to become glassy eyed and overwhelmed, he told the FEMA representative on the phone that he was authorizing me to advocate on his behalf and he handed me the phone

It seems that in order to be even considered for a request for FEMA rental assistance, he needed to provide FEMA with 7 separate letters. They could all go into 1 envelope but not on the same pages. Keep in mind in the unfoldment of this bureaucratic odyssey that he is homeless.

I took the notes from the FEMA worker over the phone as to what he needed to be considered for a request:

1. Write a letter to FEMA stating he was in need of housing assistance from FEMA.
(Easy enough. It could be done without my help.)

2. Write a letter to FEMA outlining a 'housing plan' explaining what he is planning to do for permanent housing.

(Things begin to get a little complicated: in the 9th Ward where this homeless man resides, most of the houses are still empty. Affordable housing is extremely difficult at best, to find and you have to be there with money order or check in hand before someone else grabs the place. So having a permanent housing plan as they are asking is next to impossible. Let's say we find a way to write the letter that takes this 'reality" into the equation and the FEMA "reality, then we move on to the 3rd letter).

3. Write a letter to FEMA showing he had done a search for affordable housing. Cut out newspaper addresses and go to visit apartments and list the contacts he made.

(Another complication: This man is homeless, when possible he earns a few dollars a day here and there. One of the ways he earned some money after the storm: he took down a storm ravaged house by hand, putting the debris out by the curb for weekly pickup).

In order to fulfill the needs of letter 3, he would need to buy newspapers, cut out the ads, and then this man who is homeless, would need to find the money to get the one bus out of his neighborhood to where there is housing - mostly mid-town, uptown, and the suburbs - round trip and on more than one occasion. Not that he would not do everything in his power to do this. This man is a hard worker and is trying to pull his life together.

Okay, so let's say he gets past this point - without my intervention. He has written his 3rd letter, cut and taped apartments for rent on a piece of paper (having previously gotten the funds together for the paper for writing the letters, envelopes for various requests, stamps, and tape). He got the funds together for the round trip bus fares and/or even walked into the city and back, to visit the various apartments), and now he has a list of contact addresses and phone numbers. He moves on to letter 4.

(A note from your Planetary Sister: Have you ever experienced homelessness? If you have, then you would understand why these seemingly simple tasks seem so gargantuan. When you are poor and homeless, you just don't walk into the study or go to your desk and grab some paper, an envelope and a stamp. You have to buy everything you need to get a task accomplished and without a car and access to local stores, getting the simplest needs met can be a stressful task. And for those of you who might say "well he is homeless he has nothing else to do". My experience has been that when you are homeless and poor, you spend most of your time looking for a way to get a hold of some money to eat and get your daily needs met. The simplest things we take for granted, like having a clean bathroom to use when we need it, become part of the ordeal of making it through the day. Now add onto this experience having some level of PTSD and the possibility of other challenges. Compassion is needed when understanding what it is like to be poor. Too often than not, people judge others from the framework of their own experiences. That is why the saying "don't judge another until you walk in their shoes", is important to remember.)

4. Write a letter to FEMA proving he went on 6 job searches, whether he was interviewed or not, and visit the unemployment office. He must list the names of the companies he has applied to (aaah, a little glitch here - he has a past felony conviction - so many doors to jobs are already closed...). He is a go-getter though, and he finds round trip bus fares for 6 different job interviews,(or if he is lucky he can schedule 2 or 3 interviews per trip).

Next step, he needs to schedule the interviews. There's only one problem, he doesn't have a phone. So what does a homeless man do to call and find out if the job is still available? Try and find a pay phone that works in the area! How can they get back to him ? He has no phone, nor address?

At this hurdle let's say I intervene. I give him my cell phone to use, I also tell him go ahead and give potential employers my phone number to contact him. I receive messages for him and drive down to the 9th Ward to give him his messages, and I make the cell phone available as needed to complete letter #4. It's time to move on to the 5th letter.

5. He must provide FEMA with proof of previous disaster income. This homeless man who lost everything will try to contact HUD/HANO and have them issue a letter as to what he earned. HANO for all intents and purposes, is closed in New Orleans. I am told by the FEMA representative on the phone that he must then contact the U.S. Treasury bank and get his records from them.

Okay, time for me to intervene again. I get online and begin Google searches to find out how to get his previous earnings record from HUD/HANO and information about how to find the U.S. Treasury Bank. I spent about 2o minutes whilst writing this treatise Googling the above information - no luck. And I am good at Googling!

In this particular odyssey things are found and let's say, after hour(s) of researching, that I find the addresses he needs and the departments to send them to. He writes his letter of request for proof of income, he mails off the letter and he waits for a reply.

In this imperfect world it takes about a month for his request to be answered. Being homeless he has no address. Before sending off his letter of request for his records, we talk to the Catholic priest at the local church and he allows him to receive mail at the church. (Thank you Father!).

We are on to the 6th letter.

6. Provide FEMA with a letter from his mother who lived in the house that was destroyed in the 9th Ward, who rented him the back apartment, who now lives in Texas, (she was never able to come back); indicating he did rent the apartment in the back of the house from her and the amount of his rent pre-Katrina. His mother is able to do this and the church receives her letter in about a week to 2 weeks. (If he is 60, let's assume she is in her late 70's or 80's - so we will give her an extra week).

He has his 6th letter ready for the envelope. Onto letter number 7.

7. Provide FEMA with a letter concerning his current household info.

A few months have passed. Seven letters have been written, documents requested and received, and multiple tasks have been accomplished by this homeless man (with a few interventions). He goes out and earns some money and faxes (hmm... not at $2.00 a page for out of state), so he takes the 7 letters and documents (at this point, I intervene again and drive to the store and get him a large envelope - as there are no local stores for him to get stationary). He takes the envelope down to the Post Office, buys the postage to get his package in the mail and on its way to FEMA.

Now we just need to get him a Louisiana Identification card* whilst we await the response from FEMA on his request...

Oh, didn't I tell you this at the beginning of this story? We were told it would take up to a month depending on the workload to receive FEMA's response. And that their response would only indicate whether FEMA was willing to respond to his request. It would not be an acceptance of his request!

* Just a quick note about what we have gone through in getting a Louisiana identification card when you are homeless as a result of Katrina. Thanks to the new tough immigration laws - the people of New Orleans seem to be asked to jump through impossible hoops to get their picture identification cards after losing their identification - re: Katrina and the subsequent flooding.
Thanks to kindness and generosity of the folks at Travelers Aid at Covenant House - the poor and indigent are provided with a check written to the State for the birth certificate and then a check to Department of Motor Vehicles for their State identification card. They also help them get the paperwork they need for voter registration cards and how to get their Social Security paperwork together. If some one was previously in and they have their old picture Id's it is much easier to get your id. (6/18/07 - note: I have also found since the original writing of this post that if you are 60 or older you do not have to pay for your id).

Unfortunately, the new laws make getting the identification cards with their picture next to impossible. I offer to drive him out to the suburbs to get his birth certificate (it took most of the day). Then next day we went to the DMV which is at the other side of the city in the suburbs. Here he was given a full page list of forms of identification needed to get his Louisiana identification card as the birth certificate was not enough. He needed a picture id to get his picture id or a Social Security card. To get a Social Security card, he needed to have a picture identification. Aaargh! You can't get the one without the other. He walks home from the Social Security Administration offices dejected.

As of today, he has given up trying to get his Louisiana identification card. I heard that he has found some work for a week, he picked up a bag of food I left for him in the neighborhood (a Christian group gives out free groceries on Saturdays in the Lower 9th Ward and I go down and pick up food for a few people who cannot get to the location).

I'm trying to find him. I want to see what 'we' can do together get him out of this bureaucratic quagmire. To help him move from homelessness to home.


1 comment:

Doran said...

It seems so sad to me that this is the state of the bureaucracy, and I'm moved by your persistance, to say nothing of the survivors...