When Evacuees Become Residents, Part 3

The state's Health and Human Services Commission report, titled Hurricane Katrina Evacuees in Texas, is available online now; go here to see what we've been referring to this afternoon. There's also a story in today's Christian Science Monitor about the strain the 251,000 Katrina evacuees are beginning to put on the state, especially in the Houston area, where some 111,000 transplants are still living a year after the hurricane. (The Science Monitor piece uses the by now familiar 150,000 figure, which HHSC would dispute after the Gallup Organization survey's release today.)

There will no doubt be significant reaction to this survey. That, after all, was the point of it, says Ted Hughes, a spokesman for the HHSC (and, in 1980, the founding editor of the Dallas Observer).

"The purpose of the study was to get a set of facts people could discuss," he says. "Everybody knows we have these individuals that came to us because they were fleeing their homes that had been destroyed, but at some point they become Texans. This is something that has to be discussed at the local level, the state level and the federal level by legislators and policy-makers. Our commissioner [Albert Hawkins] wanted to have as good a set of facts as he could generate in this kind of study, and it was comprehensive. The results speak for themselves at this point, and it would be way beyond my level of competence to say what they mean other than these are the facts we know now. Our hope is everyone will begin to digest them and come up with the policy decisions that need to be made."

And those decisions will need to come very quickly. There are several red flags scattered throughout the report, chief among them the fact that many Katrina evacuees are going to need housing in the near future, lest they go homeless, while others will start using state services they've ignored during the past year. Says the study in conclusion:

"In the short term, many Katrina evacuees face serious housing needs. While the survey revealed that most evacuees were settled into their own rented apartments or homes, 54 percent depend on housing subsidies. FEMA subsidies are scheduled to end either in August 2006 or, in other cases, in February 2007. While some evacuees may be able to remain in their current housing, those without jobs and adequate income could be at risk for homelessness by early next year. Further, FEMA notes that only a small number of evacuees are completing the necessary documentation to apply for the housing assistance program that ends in February.

Without sufficient income, evacuees who are not already using services such as Medicaid, CHIP, food stamps or TANF (cash assistance) will likely need these benefits. While community agencies, foundations, and private companies offered initial assistance with medical and prescription costs, food, and other necessities, their ability to provide such aid indefinitely is limited.

...Large numbers of evacuees remain unemployed, many report declines in physical and mental health, and, as a whole, the evacuees have limited personal resources to draw from as they cope with their enormous challenges."

When the report says "challenges remain" for these newly minted Texans, that goes tenfold for Texas. --Robert Wilonsky

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