Against All Odds

A group of unsupervised mental patients running from Katrina made it from New Orleans to Houston. Victor Fruge led the way.

These days, Johnson devotes much of her time wrestling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She gets letters from FEMA saying her application has been received. But they don't say anything about when she will begin receiving checks. The vast majority of the 70 Katrina evacuees now living at Liberty Island have gotten no money from FEMA, she says.

Many of those residents lost the paperwork that shows they received health insurance in another state. Some don't know their own birth dates, let alone their personal identification numbers. "I have two people I can't get a dime because I can't get their social security cards," Johnson says. "I don't understand what we need to do to get the checks."

While the government's handling of Katrina has renewed debates about race and poverty in America, Johnson says the most vulnerable segment of the population continues to be neglected. "Katrina exposed the problems of the mentally ill," she says. "The mentally ill are always at the bottom of the barrel."

More than half the men from Abstract House continue 
to live at Liberty Island, an adult day-care facility on 
Houston's southwest side. Some of them plan to stay, 
while others don't know where they'll end up next.
Daniel Kramer
More than half the men from Abstract House continue to live at Liberty Island, an adult day-care facility on Houston's southwest side. Some of them plan to stay, while others don't know where they'll end up next.


Wearing baggy, flowing clothes pocked with cigarette burns and a black leather driving cap turned backward, Victor Fruge sits hunched at the edge of his bed, clutching his elbows, eyes fixed on a TV screen. He is watching a Discovery Channel documentary titled Killer Hurricane: Anatomy of Katrina, which details the studies that warned of New Orleans's vulnerability to a powerful hurricane. "You see," he says, slapping his thigh. "They knew all this shit. This just fucks me up."

Fruge has received no money from FEMA, and relies on Aretha Johnson to spot him ten bucks every few days to buy smokes. A self-described hustler, Fruge can usually find ways to scrape together a few dollars. Even during the many years when he was homeless, Fruge peddled fruit outside a food stamp office in New Orleans. Back at Abstract House, he would buy cigarettes for other residents for a small fee. Fruge thinks about returning to Louisiana, where he has family. But for now he plans to stay at Liberty Island. He likes the place, the routine and some of the other guys. "We're a picture of animosity," he says, grinning. "That's how we get down."

Douglass Heidelberg, the poet, can't wait to get back to Louisiana, where he was born. He's trying to arrange to return by bus. When he thinks of it, he starts jumping up and down, his mind characteristically straying from tangent to tangent. "There's nothing like New Orleans," he says. "All those swamps. Of course, I never had to tussle with an alligator. I don't even pick up the water moccasins…"

Ray Brown, who has not received any of his HIV medications since fleeing New Orleans, returned to Abstract House a couple of weekends ago to retrieve some clothes, papers and other belongings. But everything was ruined. Some of the building's windows were blown out, he reports, and the place was covered in mold that he feared was toxic.

Barrie Byrnes, the owner of Abstract House, went back to New Orleans several weeks after the evacuation. She says the place was covered in flies and roaches. Since the refrigerators were never emptied out, the smell was overwhelming. Byrnes says that several of her former residents have phoned her from their new perch at Liberty Island. They ask if they should come back. She tells them to decide for themselves.

"Who knows," she says. "Texas may have more to offer them. Or not."

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