Displaced by Katrina, Family Faces Money Issues
LIANE HANSEN, host:
In November, NPR's Allison Keyes began a series of stories on Demetria Martin and Kenny James. The couple, along with their baby daughter, were among hundreds of families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who relocated to the Washington, D.C. area. Although they're glad to have a place to live, Keyes finds on her latest visit that Martin and James are increasingly frustrated by the challenges of being in a new city with little control over their future.
ALLISON KEYES reporting:
When we first checked in with Martin and James, they were optimistic about their future here. But in the three months since, their financial outlook has gone from bad to worse. On the donated couch in the middle of her living room, Demetria Martin is brushing her six-month-old daughter's hair, wrapping a bright ponytail holder around each section.
Ms. DEMETRIA MARTIN (Hurricane Katrina Survivor): Oh, look at Barney! (Singing) I love you, you love me...
KEYES: But the smile on the faces of Demetria and her husband, Kenny James, turn bitter when they start to talk about the trouble they're having making ends meet.
Ms. MARTIN: I feel angry and sad, you know. You was getting phone calls. You was getting this, you was getting that, and now everything is slowing down.
KEYES: James and Martin weren't used to asking anyone for help. They lived in New Orleans Ninth Ward with their 10 children. James worked as a caterer and Martin worked as a waitress.
Ms. MARTIN: It wasn't bad at all. We kept working, kept money, didn't haven't to ask nobody for nothing. Bills stayed paid, everything.
KEYES: Then Katrina came and the couple fled their four-bedroom home for their AmeriHost Hotel on Canal Street. That's where little Kiara was delivered by her father on August 29th, at the height of the hurricane, by candlelight. Now Kenny, Demetria and Kiara live in a government-subsidized, two-bedroom apartment in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. Their other 10 children are living with their grandfather in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Now they are so strapped for money, they've been reduced to asking neighbors for assistance.
Mr. KENNY JAMES (Hurricane Katrina Survivor): You come down here with nothing and you think you're just supposed to start out perfectly.
KEYES: James and Martin got the standard 2,000 in disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Assistance agency soon after the storm and FEMA has been paying the rent on their apartment. They have also received at least 2,500 in furniture, food, travel and other aid from the Bethesda-based nonprofit, A Wider Circle. But they still must pay for utilities, including cable and the phone, as well as food.
James is diabetic and says he's been too sick to work. Martin says she's been negotiating a nightmare of red tape to keep FEMA's rental assistance, not to mention her battles for food stamps and cash assistance from everyone from the Red Cross to Maryland social service agencies.
Ms. MARTIN: Then the Salvation Army I went to, they gave me $25 gift certificates, like that's supposed to help. Everybody else keeps saying everything's pending. Pending, pending, pending.
KEYES: Now that Kiara is a little older, Martin is looking for a job, but she bristles at the notion that her family should be self-sufficient by now.
Ms. MARTIN: It's not our fault we can't get no job. We can't put no gun to nobody head and say, Hire us, we need a job, we from New Orleans from the hurricane. Like I said, it takes time, but time to me is running out. My patience is very short.
KEYES: But FEMA spokesman James McIntyre(ph) says many families have the mistaken impression that the agency will make them whole.
Mr. JAMES McINTYRE (Spokesman, FEMA): Our role is to give them a bridge to help them get started on their recovery.
KEYES: McIntyre says FEMA is only mandated to provide shelter and housing and some families who can verify their losses are eligible for a one-time award.
Mr. McINTYRE: Once we provide you housing, then it's your responsibility to find the other resources that you need to take care of your family. That includes finding jobs, finding other unmet needs committees and social agencies that can support you.
KEYES: Over at A Wider Circle, which furnished James and Martin's home, Executive Director Mark Bergel walks slowly through the rows of beds, toaster ovens and other household items distributed to about 20 families a week. He says those who think the evacuees have gotten enough help don't understand what the Katrina victims have been through.
Mr. MARK BERGEL (Executive Director, A Wider Circle): I think there's a lot of stress, and just because we gave people something three months ago, we didn't teach them a lot of things. And if they were in poverty there, why do we think they're going to come here, get something for three months, and then be out of poverty?
KEYES: James and Martin think people have simply forgotten about the evacuees and he's furious that New Orleans held Mardi Gras before rebuilding the Ninth Ward.
Mr. JAMES: Here you got people with no homes, no place to stay, here they're worrying about Mardi Gras. Forget Mardi Gras right now. Take care of New Orleans, get your people back.
KEYES: Since the family cannot return to their New Orleans home right now, James says his main priority right now is trying to figure out a way to provide his family like he used to.
Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.
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