FEMA Trailer Park Closes
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
The black mayors meeting is a sign that New Orleans is rebuilding. But the city is still struggling to recover from the blow of Hurricane Katrina. The storm scattered the people of New Orleans across Louisiana and the country. Hundreds of families settled in a place called Renaissance Village. It's a trailer park set up about 90 miles from New Orleans. It was the first temporary housing group that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, built in Louisiana after Katrina.
And it remained the biggest. Well, this week Renaissance Village officially closed. Sister Judith Brun has worked closely with Renaissance Village residents since the park was built. And welcome to the program, Sister Brun.
Ms. JUDITH BRUN (Sister): Thank you.
SEABROOK: What's Renaissance Village like now?
Ms. BRUN: Oh, a drastic change. We had almost 600 trailers there in the beginning, and I would say if there are 60 there, that's a lot today. Of that 60 only 15 of them have residents in them. Once the families leave the trailer park, they will be offered rental assistance up through March of next year.
SEABROOK: So, they'd go find…
Ms. BRUN: However…
SEABROOK: …so, they'd go find an apartment to rent and they'd get some kind of subsidy for that?
Ms. BRUN: Exactly, exactly. But if a person or a family is not eligible for FEMA assistance, there is a high risk of that family becoming homeless.
SEABROOK: So, how are these residents who are still there, how are they dealing with the closing of the park?
Ms. BRUN: I have noticed in the last two or three days a tremendous escalation of anxiety, substance abuse, restless behavior, anger has increased, frustration is on the rise.
SEABROOK: I want to take a moment to sort of look at the history of Renaissance Village now that it's closing down. We'll always have a place, I think, in American history. Eight hundred and fifty families…
Ms. BRUN: That's right.
SEABROOK: …moved through Renaissance Village after Hurricane Katrina. Lots have come and gone. For a place that was so transitional, was there a community there? What was it like, Sister Judith?
Ms. BRUN: When we first moved out there, I actually was fortunate to be with many of the residents the first day that the move started taking place to Renaissance Village. They arrived on Greyhound buses with all their earthly belongings and garbage bags. But they were happy to have some space of their own; a little quiet, but in general it was a very depressed group that moved out.
FEMA's mission is to provide transitional housing, not social services. And they evidenced that in the way the park was designed. There was no what I would call town center or gathering place for the residents. Immediately I said, oh no, we have to have tables, we have to chairs, we have to have morning paper. We have to have a place for people to gather, and this became the gathering place.
SEABROOK: Do you think that because of the work you did in the trailer park to make it more of a community that Renaissance Village ended up helping people not just by having a place to live but pull their lives back together?
Ms. BRUN: I think many people helped one another in this environment, absolutely. But I don't know that we really had the onsite, the personnel, nor the capacity to engage these residents in starting to develop life plans and hopes and goals for themselves. That said, it leaves us in a very precarious situation as the park is closing.
SEABROOK: Sister Judith Brun directs the Community Initiative Foundation in Baton Rouge. Sister Judith, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Ms. BRUN: Thank you.
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