Gulf Coast Evacuees Find Limited Success in Tennessee

A new study by the state of Tennessee reveals that more than half of the thousands of Gulf Coast evacuees still living in the state are unemployed. Many haven't found long-term housing.

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Updates now on those affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

Nearly 4,000 hurricane evacuees from the Gulf Coast still live in FEMA supported housing in Tennessee. New Tennessee state surveys found that 80 percent of those people are at risk of homelessness. That's because more than half of that population remains unemployed.

NPR's Audie Cornish talked to evacuees in Nashville to find out why.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Since September, more than 200 Gulf Coast evacuees have been in and out of the Middle Tennessee Career Center and office of Pamela Bradley Smith.

Ms. PAMELA BRADLEY SMITH (Middle Tennessee Career Center): Well, I have a contact for you from Project Paycheck.

Ms. JUDY TRUVEA(ph) (Katrina Evacuee): Oh, that's good!

CORNISH: The Center provides career counseling, resume seminars and many job fairs, and for former New Orleans resident and 20-year hospital administrator Judy Truvea the last place she expected to be more than six months after the storm.

Ms. TRUVEA: If I thought I would have had a job, you know, like, even as a receptionist in medical records. That's what I was trying to get. A file clerk. A simple position. I'm not applying for no management position. I just want a job.

CORNISH: Hurricane Katrina left Truvea unemployed for the first time in two decades. She had to call all around the country to track down her old bosses and co-workers for references, and worked on the city library computers for her job search.

Now in her early 50's, Truvea says employers are rejecting her as over-qualified for entry-level positions and are scared off by her former salary. At times, she says, it feels like her evacuee status isn't evoking much goodwill.

Ms. TRUVEA: Now, I figure if I chose to relocate and apply for work, well, that's a different situation. Maybe they would have handled it different. But like, due to the circumstances, it should be even easier for me to find employment, because I didn't choose to relocate here. I was forced to.

CORNISH: Truvea's job counselor, Pamela Bradley Smith, says finding a job under the best of circumstances is a long process. Evacuees are at a further disadvantage, because many have relocated several times since the hurricanes and had to track down new identification papers and references.

They often don't have the social networks to tap into their new cities. And over the last three months, Smith says many employers are more likely to feel that hurricane evacuees need to move on.

Ms. SMITH: Some of the concerns that I've heard have simply go back to, well, are individuals ready to work? Are there other things that would get in the way of them being able to accept and hold down employment?

CORNISH: And Smith says employers raise concerns about everything from whether job applicants have consistent childcare and transportation to whether or not they're still traveling back and forth to the Gulf Coast. And these are issues that are still facing nearly all of Smith's clients, who've run the gamut from former attorneys and college professors to construction and restaurant workers, like Sam Caruso(ph).

Mr. SAM CARUSO (Hurricane Evacuee): I worked at quite a few different restaurants in New Orleans. And there's not nearly, the service industry, not nearly nothing like it is in New Orleans.

CORNISH: Clients like Caruso, who worked in popular New Orleans industries like tourism, or even oil production, are having to make big adjustments, says Smith. For instance, once a bartender, Caruso's now making much less money as a sales clerk at an electronics store. In the meantime, he's had to send his fiancée and two children back to Louisiana to stay with relatives, and he's already in debt to his landlord.

Mr. CARUSO: I mean it's almost like it's, I feel more overwhelmed. There's just so many other things, you know, as time goes on, there's more things that you have to do. And I mean, I'll tell you what, it's like something new pops up every day.

CORNISH: In the end, Smith says she sees a lot of compromise, evacuees whose expectations must be readjusted as they make the decision not to return to New Orleans.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.

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