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The Homelessness Marathon

America's only national broadcast focusing on
homelessness and poverty

The 22nd Homelessness Marathon aired on Wednesday, December 9, 2020.
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By Jeremy Weir Alderson aka Nobody

This year I had the unsettling experience of finding out that I didn't actually know much about something I thought I knew a lot about. I was in rural Mississippi, talking to survivors of Katrina, right near the Ground Zero where the hurricane came ashore. I thought I knew a lot about their plight, because Katrina was surely one of the most covered stories of the last century. What I discovered was that those iconic scenes of hungry, thirsty survivors right after the storm just marked the beginning of the malign neglect that marred the recovery process. One survivor warned me that what happened to them was like a "premonition" of what could happen to the rest of the country if a disaster strikes.

Yes, government on all levels did respond to Katrina, but the response was woefully deficient. Here, for example, are three things that should have been done right away that were never done at all:

First, there was no assistance with IDs. Except for at the local soup kitchen and similar ad hoc efforts, you couldn't get aid without an ID. That's perfectly reasonable in terms of preventing fraud, but unfortunately, losing everything, means losing everything, including your ID. One survivor told me he was required to get four documents, including his birth certificate and social security card, before he would be issued a new photo ID. To get the process rolling, he was supposed to go to places he'd done business with to see if they had an old bill or something that had his name and now non-existent address on it, but of course, many of the places where he might have gone weren't there anymore. There should have been ID help desks set up immediately after the storm. Instead, desperate survivors were sent on a paper chase that took some of them months to complete.

Second, no one set up a temporary transportation system. Survivors, who might have applied for a job, volunteered or sought aid, often had no way to get from point A to point B. Think what it would be like to get around L.A. or Chicago or New York if there was no public transportation, the cars had all been destroyed and most of the streets were choked with rubble. That's what it was like in Mississippi, with the added problem that the street signs and landmarks had been washed away.

Third, no extra money was allocated to local governments for the paperwork involved with the recovery process. In the best of times, the Gulf Coast mostly consists of small towns and municipalities that have to gear up just to file the forms for a new highway bypass. After Katrina, they found themselves having to file papers for everything, but with no help to do it.

On top of these examples of government doing nothing, there is one example of government doing something so ugly that it must not be overlooked. After Katrina, thousands of people were put in the now infamous FEMA trailers, and those warnings about deadly formaldehyde fumes weren't the only ones FEMA ignored.

FEMA had every reason to know that, even though the trailers were supposed to be temporary, some people were never going to be able to move out without help. These included elderly and disabled people living on Social Security. In the good old days, when they had places to live, their meager incomes were enough to survive on, but once their homes were destroyed, there was simply no way they could ever afford to rebuild or move into the new, pricier, rental housing that was slowly being built.

The Bush Administration arbitrarily set March 1st of this year as a deadline for everybody to be out of the FEMA trailers (and FEMA-funded motel rooms too). They said that everyone had had long enough to make other plans, which was true, actually, but only if for some people the "other plans" involved living in a refrigerator box.

The Obama Administration extended the deadline by two months, and FEMA promised that whatever happened after that wouldn't involve evictions. I, personally, had a conference call with several FEMA officials who told me the agency didn't even have an eviction procedure, but they must have found one in a closet, because when the sixty days were up, eviction notices started going out.

After an outcry, FEMA reversed itself and said it wouldn't evict any more people until they had already been helped to find an alternative place to go, but that doesn't change the fact that the Obama Administration was prepared to throw impoverished elderly and disabled Katrina survivors out onto the streets.

Mississippi is no longer the pariah state it was during the years of the Civil Rights Movement. Its people, along with the storm-ravaged residents of Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, need help from all of us, and all of us should learn from what they went through: If disaster strikes, in way too many ways, we'll be on our own.