Mike, Joe, Chris, Lawrence, Sequoia and their friends are looking ghetto fabulous. The men sport sags, giant tattoos and sleeveless shirts. The women wear bright halter tops and shiny metallic belts. But nobody's feeling fabulous. They've just visited a packed Federal Emergency Management Agency aid center on the South Loop and been told to come back later. Meanwhile, they're staying in a hotel on their own dime and bleeding cash.
I'm here to help. I'm not a Red Cross worker or a missionary -- I'm a journalist looking to write about young evacuees rebuilding their lives -- but I tell them I'd be happy to help in their search for jobs, show them around the city and run errands; and if they'd care to talk to me about their experiences, I'd be glad to listen. The deal sounds good to them. I pass out my card and take down a cell phone number.
I call that evening and mention that I'm going to New Orleans in two days. Do they need anything? Sequoia says her clothes are still in her flooded house. Can I swing by and get them? No problem, I say. She asks me to dial her when I'm in town and ready.
Saturday morning, Interstate 10 shuttles me past a blur of blown-out billboards, snapped pine trees and collapsed churches. Rita's ugly face recedes and Katrina's jumps in snarling. As I turn down Airline Street and drive into the heart of the city, I see twisted piles of sheet metal and miles of blown-out windows. The road dips beneath an overpass and into the scum-stained flood zone. An abandoned boat rests on a sidewalk.
In the morning, I push deeper into the center of the flood's devastation. A wide boulevard littered with abandoned cars and city buses leads to a police checkpoint. I flash a press badge and cross a drawbridge into the mud-slathered wasteland of the Lower Ninth Ward. A boat sits in a tree. A house has floated two blocks and settled down atop the cab of an 18-wheeler. Egrets spear minnows in the streets.
Standing in the goop, I pull out my cell phone and call Sequoia. A groggy Lawrence answers the phone and says she's asleep. It's noon. I tell him I need to return to Houston, so if she wants her clothes, now's the time. He puts her on the phone. She groans, "Huh?" And the line goes dead. I call back. She mumbles something and cuts out again. I chalk it up to New Orleans's spotty cell phone reception and redial. I get voice-mail and leave an urgent message.
Seven hours later, I'm climbing out of my car in Houston when Sequoia calls. Can I get her clothes? As patiently as possible, I explain that I'm back in Houston. Then I tell her about the Lower Ninth Ward. "Houses were in the streets, and everything was covered in mud," I say. "It was crazy. But they're starting to let people back in again."
"Oh, okay," Sequoia says. And she hangs up on me.
Nearly two months after the first evacuees arrived from New Orleans, my love for them has been quickly fading. Houston's poor complain that evacuees are taking away beds in shelters, sucking up donated supplies and driving up housing costs. But my gripe is more personal: My efforts to help the evacuees have been met with, at best, indifference and, at worst, contempt.
In the beginning, I felt good about myself, and about the people I thought I was helping. I hopped on a Metro rail packed with exhausted evacuees clutching Wal-Mart bags and rode to the Astrodome one evening in September to volunteer. Officials were so overwhelmed with eager workers that they were turning people away. Outside the Dome that night on the grass, I sat down next to Marvin Clay, who said he'd run out of food, escaped from his apartment building in a boat with his neighbors, floated past 13 dead bodies, an alligator and a shark and camped on a bridge for a night until a bus picked him up. "We got to look out for each other," he said. "We all we got."
I gave Clay's friends my number, asked them to call me, and never heard from them again.
Over the next week at the Astrodome, I talked to five groups of young men. Some wanted help. Broderic Mack and Antonio Green had escaped from their houses with a man in a boat, joined in the rescue efforts and bounced from a school to the Superdome to Reliant Center, where they met Reginald Cheneau. "We just trying to hang out and make a better life," Cheneau said. I later talked to the men over the phone and set up a time to meet them and take them to an employment agency.
But they never showed up for the meeting or called again.
Some evacuees were openly hostile. A group of young men sitting outside Reliant Center one night taunted that New Orleans would take over Houston. One insisted that he'd talk to me only if I gave him money. Another confessed to shooting a cop, adding that he'd only done it because the officer was about to cap a member of his family. The outside world has a skewed idea of life in the 'hood and after the hurricane, the men said. I offered to tell their story and to help them get oriented in Houston. They said they'd call me. They never did.
I visited the George R. Brown Convention Center a few days later and talked to Cornell Ridgley, Barron Bowie Sr. and Darren Clark, making the same offers to help them look for jobs and housing. Clark was sloshed on Mad Dog 20/20, pissed at the president for flooding his city and feeling pretty warm toward the local thugs. "We got enemies in here," he said, gesturing around, "but right now we are standing together. We don't got time for that [gang warfare stuff]. We lost too much."
"All of us folk don't have shit," he added. "And they took what we had."
Clark promised to call the next day. "I'll tell you the same thing sober," he said.
He never called.
I had begun wondering if, despite their assertions, anybody at all from New Orleans actually wanted or needed help, especially from me. Then the phone rang a few days later. It was Ridgley. He had no idea where Clark and Bowie were, but could I take him to sign a lease on an apartment and pick up some stuff at Wal-Mart?
I told him I'd meet him at the downtown Hilton.
I pulled up a few hours later and he wasn't there.
Why did so many people blow me off? Reluctant to think the worst -- that the poor of New Orleans are mostly deadbeats -- I sought advice.
Howard Karger is a professor of social policy at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. Listening to my horror stories, he paused for a moment and chuckled. "Welcome to the world of poor people," he said.
Karger feels that society has idealized the evacuees. In reality, the middle-class expectation that charity will be met with gratitude and reciprocity from the poor often doesn't hold true. He mentioned Sequoia, the woman who hung up on me. "The whole life of poor people is very day-to-day," he said. "And that day," her clothes "weren't very important to her."
The ghetto operates under "a different set of values," Karger said. "And I think the important thing is that people accept them on their own terms."
Those terms are especially uncertain right now, when evacuees can be suffering from exhaustion, post-traumatic stress disorder, the confusion of being in a new environment (sometimes for the very first time) and what Karger describes as "volunteeritis" -- the state of being overloaded with too many offers to help.
Still, many academics agree that a lot of low-income people may never respond to opportunities to help themselves -- even when overtures seem generous. "I think that by the time someone is 30, there is nothing we know how to do," says Douglas Besharov, a poverty researcher with the American Enterprise Institute. "And therefore, I am one of those who says that we need to prevent this from happening by doing a better job in elementary and high school."
Ultimately, only one of the dozens of evacuees I'd met over a month of interviews followed through.
After I sat in my car for five minutes at the Hilton, Cornell Ridgley, the man who had asked me to help him run errands, miraculously appeared with his wife and his stepson's girlfriend. I drove them to an apartment building and Wal-Mart, where they used a FEMA card to buy clothes. By the end of the day, they were exhausted and appreciative. Ridgley's wife even offered to cook me a Creole meal once they moved into their new home.
Yet after calling me three weeks ago to thank me for sending him job postings, Ridgley has fallen out of touch. The Creole meal hasn't happened. And he hasn't delivered on a promise to introduce me to younger evacuees such as his stepson.
Still, I can't entirely give up on the notion that he'll call. "Don't worry, man," he'd said on his cell phone. "I'm gonna get back to you."
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