Post-Katrina Mental Health: What Can Be Done?

What is the source of the dysfunction in the FEMA trailer parks, and what can possibly be done to help? In the second part of the Scenic Trails story, reporter Alix Spiegel talks to government officials, mental health counselors, church volunteers and others.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We now return to Alix Spiegel's story about mental health in FEMA trailer parks after hurricane Katrina. In part two, Alix explores why the situation is still so desperate.

Unidentified Group: Amen. Amen.

ALIX SPIEGEL: Each Sunday at nine, traveling preacher Timothy Lazan(ph) sets a large black boombox on the front table of the Scenic Trails clubhouse and attempts to share God's love with the FEMA park residents.

On the morning I visited, eight people sat scattered over four rows, watching quietly as Lazan and his wife Toni(ph) clapped their hands to the inspirational CD.

(Soundbite of music)

SPIEGEL: Though the Lazans firmly believe that God has called them to help these people, they clearly have found the process difficult. They talked to me about the first Christmas after the storm. How together with their church, they worked to buy presents for each of the traumatized families. But how in the months leading up to Christmas, every time they set foot on the park, this effort met with criticism.

Mr. TIMOTHY LAZAN (Traveling Preacher): It gets (unintelligible) you didn't get the right size, or you didn't get this that I'm sitting here. You saw it yourself. Be thankful for what you got.

SPIEGEL: Lazan's disenchantment is profound enough that when I told him about my own experience, how in a single morning, four park residents told me they had seriously considered suicide. He only shook his head.

Mr. LAZAN: They'll say that. They'll play on your emotions. A lot of times, you got to be careful because they want something from you.

SPIEGEL: Lazan talks to me about his experience. How a couple of months ago, he was called by the park manager to help a resident threatening to kill himself.

Mr. LAZAN: Now this man supposed to be wanted to commit suicide, and he got in a heated conversation with me. If you just committed suicide, you're not going to get in a heated conversation with a minister.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAZAN: I'm so sorry. You're just not going to do it. And what had happened is, he's wanting something. He's wanting something. And most of it was pity.

SPIEGEL: As far as the Lazans are concerned, if you were searching for some explanation of why FEMA park residents are struggling, you need look no farther than the nearest trailer.

Mr. LAZAN: The governments come in, gave the helping hand, people in the churched around they give the helping hand. What's the problem? The person - all the people that don't meet society standards in little camps now. And people are seeing it.

SPIEGEL: You actually hear this argument a fair amount when you travel around southern Mississippi. Many see the parks as bastions of crime, filled with people who refuse to help themselves. In fact, in Hancock County, where Scenic Trails is located, Scenic Trails is considered one of the least troubled parks.

Mr. EDDIE SMITH (Police Officer, Hancock County Sheriff's Department): Hancock (unintelligible) dispatcher back to me and…

SPIEGEL: One day during my visit, officer Eddie Smith of the Hancock County Sheriff's Department took me on a tour of the trailers in another Hancock FEMA park.

Mr. SMITH: This mobile here where this black car is, we have a lot of problems out. We had a domestic there the other night. I mean, you could sit right there this afternoon and they can go from fight to fight to fight to fight.

SPIEGEL: And this one you think is worst than Scenic Trails?

Mr. SMITH: Oh yeah, yeah.

SPIEGEL: Still, not everyone is convinced that FEMA park residents are exclusively to blame for their predicament. J.R. Welsh, a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald covers Hancock County and is in and out of the parks on a regular basis talking to people.

Mr. J.R. WELSH (Reporter, Biloxi Sun Herald): Most of them are working poor. You see them working at the retail stores or the hamburger joints.

SPIEGEL: In fact, Welsh doesn't even need to leave his office to see FEMA park residents. He just has to look out his window.

Mr. WELSH: I see them all day long up and down the Highway 90. They walk where they go in their little, you know, work uniforms. Maybe they walk a mile; maybe they walk five miles. And at the end of an eight or 10 or 12-hour shift, they walk back to that FEMA trailer. They're just basic working poor people who would love to get out of that park. But they can't.

SPIEGEL: And according to Welsh, there's a simple reason people can't leave - the cost of living.

Mr. WELSH: A meal in a restaurant is beyond the means of a lot of these folks now. Looking at some figures the other day, the average rental for a house in Hancock County before the hurricane in the 2000 census was about 417 dollars. Now it may be from eight to nine to a thousand. Where do these people go? You're a prisoner there, basically.

SPIEGEL: The day after I talked to Welsh, I went to visit a Mississippi FEMA office and met with Cindy Gordon(ph). She told me that every day, she and her FEMA co-workers methodically search apartment listings, contact real estate agents, all in an effort to locate what she calls, fair market rent. That is, apartments that are affordable for someone on a minimum wage. But the day I visited, this is how many she had on offer.

Ms. CINDY GORDON (Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mississippi): As of right now, we don't surveyed anything in Hancock County that's available under fair market rent.

SPIEGEL: You mean literally zero.

Ms. GORDON: Right.

SPIEGEL: Gordon tells me, in Hancock County alone, there are roughly 2000 people housed in FEMA parks. And 61 percent of those people are employed.

So do you feel like the working poor is essentially being warehoused in FEMA parks?

Ms. GORDON: I wouldn't say warehoused. I would say we are assisting them in every way we can.

SPIEGEL: And Gordon feels strongly that FEMA should not be blamed for the poor mental health of park residents.

Ms. GORDON: Katrina caused depression. Not the FEMA park.

SPIEGEL: But psychologist Becky Law sees something completely different. Law is the director of the Hancock County Community Mental Health Center. And she says on the contrary, the parks play a central role in the desperation she sees in her clients.

Dr. BECKY LAW (Director, Hancock County Community Mental Health Center): Really, people need to be in a place where they feel safe and secure.

SPIEGEL: After all, Law says, without basic security, the trauma, in a sense, continues.

Dr. LAW: If right now, they're in a place where they feel like they have no hopeful future, you know, they're still on a survival's mode. They're still living from day to day.

SPIEGEL: Unfortunately, according to local officials, affordable housing for Hancock is a distant dream. Home insurance along the coast has gone up 400 percent, building cost have doubled. So creating cheap housing is almost impossible.

David Yarborough member of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors tells me things are bad enough that he fields calls from people in his district all the time. Former neighbors and acquaintances, now living in the parks who beg him for help.

Mr. DAVID YARBOROUGH (Member, Hancock County Board of Supervisors): I've had several - call me, scared to death. Call me to actually try to get them out of the park, but I mean, there was really nothing I could do. They're, kind of, trapped right now.

SPIEGEL: This problem of people being trapped in FEMA parks indefinitely is not new. It often takes years to move people out of supposedly temporary parks after a major disaster. What is new is the scale. Around 35,000 people remain in FEMA trailer parks. And several housing experts told me that unless the federal government uses vouchers to move people out to less expensive areas of the country, it will likely be another three or four years before most Katrina evacuees can get out, which is a long time for residents like Kim Pinischero, the desperate woman who lost custody of her son after she attempted suicide.

Ms. PINISCHERO: This is how I look at it. Everybody does go on with life. You know what. But we are down here and we are not okay. And I know you all have other news, but peek in every once in a while, just peek in.

NORRIS: Alix Spiegel, NPR News.

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Stuck and Suicidal in a Post-Katrina Trailer Park

Rodney McGoey Jr. returns to the FEMA trailer at Scenic Trails where he and his mother have lived for nearly two years. He works laying sod. hide caption

Photo Gallery: Life at Scenic Trails
itoggle caption
Trailers and cars at Scenic Trails trailer park. i

The Scenic Trails trailer park in Perkinston, Miss., is home to more than 100 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Cheryl Gerber for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Gerber for NPR
Trailers and cars at Scenic Trails trailer park.

The Scenic Trails trailer park in Perkinston, Miss., is home to more than 100 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Cheryl Gerber for NPR
Joey Noles and his dog by the big doghouse in front of his trailer. i

Joey Noles built a big dog house outside of his FEMA trailer at Scenic Trails, where he has lived since Hurricane Katrina hit nearly two years ago. Cheryl Gerber for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Cheryl Gerber for NPR
Joey Noles and his dog by the big doghouse in front of his trailer.

Joey Noles built a big dog house outside of his FEMA trailer at Scenic Trails, where he has lived since Hurricane Katrina hit nearly two years ago.

Cheryl Gerber for NPR

The first morning of my visit to Scenic Trails, I was walking the path between some trailers when I bumped into a man named Tim Szepek. He was young, tall, and solidly good-looking. I asked if I could speak to him for a moment and he agreed. We found a spot of shade beneath a tree, and I started with what I considered a casual warm-up.

"What's it like to live around here?" I asked.

"Well," he replied, "I'll be honest."

"Ain't a day goes by when I don't think about killing myself."

And so began my time in Scenic Trails, a FEMA trailer park deep in the Mississippi woods where 100 families have lived in near isolation for close to two years.

Though Szepek was the first resident to tell me he wanted to commit suicide, he certainly wasn't the last. The day I spoke with him, three other residents confided the same.

The second person was Stephanie Sigur, a 28-year-old mother of two. She was sitting in front of her trailer at a picnic table, her daughter on her lap, when she explained that if it weren't a sin, she would have blown her brains out months ago.

"I know it's a bad thing to say because I'm a parent," she told me as her toddler played with her hair, "but I can't live like this no more."

Stephanie Sigur and Tim Szepek aren't alone. According to a recent study of 92 different Katrina FEMA parks published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, suicide attempts in Louisiana and Mississippi's parks are 79 times higher than the national average. Major depression is seven times the national rate.

When I first read those numbers, I found them hard to believe. But after three days at Scenic Trails, they made a lot more sense.

The residents there, in essence, are trapped. It is no longer possible for them to live outside the trailer parks. Prior to Katrina, most of the people who now live in the parks were renters.

Along the Mississippi coast, a family of four could rent a two- or three-bedroom apartment or small home for around $500 a month. But when the storm wiped the Mississippi coast clean, it took out all the housing infrastructure that supported these people. Most of them are minimum-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck. Today, a two- or three-bedroom apartment in Hancock County, where Scenic Trails is located, costs $800, $900, even $1,000 a month. This is an impossible amount of money for the people who live in the parks, and there is no immediate end in sight. FEMA says it would like to close the parks, but state and federal government plans to rebuild low-income housing for Mississippi coast residents have yet to break ground. Housing experts says it will probably take years to produce enough low-cost housing to move people out of the parks.

And so they are stuck. And the place they are stuck is not the kind of place you would want to spend an extended amount of time. For two years, many have lived in travel trailers intended for weekend use. Families of four housed in a space the size of most people's living rooms.

Worse, as time wears on, the communities around them seem to be falling into a kind of madness. At Scenic Trails, almost everyone at the camp has been burglarized at least once. Meth and cocaine addiction is rampant, and residents seem to be turning against one another.

Recently, the park has seen a rash of animal mutilations. One resident told me that her cat had come home bleeding — a long, thin razor cut along its leg. Another resident said his dog's throat had been cut, and several people reported that someone in the camp had been feeding anti-freeze to dogs.

No one seemed to have a particular suspect in mind. There was no specific theory of why. That was just the way things went at the camp nowadays. With no way to leave, people were angry and frustrated, and so they act out.

On the animals. On each other. On themselves.

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