By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 8, 2005
There’s no more rooms at the inn for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
Many of the poorest evacuees in Atlanta still call Catholic Charities daily, fearful of what comes next as they must vacate hotel and motel rooms by January that up till now were paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Catholic Charities office of the Archdiocese of Atlanta is responding in a variety of ways to provide long-term, critically needed support to help these evacuees not only survive but improve their lives and is calling upon parishes and individuals to join them in these efforts.
Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Atlanta Council, have just begun jointly conducting a furniture and winter coat drive to help the more than 5,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuee families in the Atlanta area relocating from hotels and motels into apartments by Jan. 7, 2006, as required by FEMA.
“They don’t have any furniture,” said Joe Krygiel, Secretary for Catholic Charities. “The more we collect it will help them get into an apartment.”
Catholic Charities is in partnership with about 15 other secular and faith-based service organizations in Georgia through the Regional Council of Churches, which is comprised of some 5,000 churches in 23 counties. The RCC’s “Standing Together” initiative is designed to help evacuees of Katrina and Rita resettle into more permanent housing. They are in the early stages of planning a faith-based resource center at Grace United Methodist Church on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta to coordinate services and programs.
As families relocate to apartments, Catholic Charities is also asking parishes to get involved by soliciting individual parishioners or parish families to sponsor a family for 12 to 18 months. The relationship would involve assisting evacuees to resettle but would not involve providing housing. Krygiel believes that particularly during Advent this is an opportunity for Catholics to reach out and truly be their brother’s keeper and to demonstrate love for their neighbors.
“We have to be our brother’s keeper. It’s almost like how there was no room at the inn for Joseph and Mary, trying to find a place for the Christ Child to be born. It’s like the evacuees are on this odyssey, and there is no room at the inn. A lot of doors are closed,” he said. “Hopefully Catholic Charities can work together with the Regional Council of Churches and business leaders and city government and respond to this. It’s almost like an overwhelming need for social services right now.”
The needs of evacuees, many of whom now receive food stamps, include food and clothing, help with transportation, access to job training and child-care. When families are resettled, information will be made available through the RCC database to nearby churches that are interested in supporting them. Krygiel also hopes parish leaders will increase awareness of ongoing post-Katrina relief. More involvement is needed than simply providing material goods, he said.
“You may be providing them some things, but you just don’t walk out of their lives. You stay with them either until they’re acclimated in Atlanta and become part of the community here or (are) resettled to another part of the country,” he said.
Sponsors will help by “standing behind them, just looking out for them until they are settled in Atlanta. It’s going to be a giant, mammoth effort” to support so many evacuees, he said.
Many of the evacuees still living in motels through FEMA support are the ones most in need of help, he said, while others with jobs, financial resources and family and friends to support them have been able to recover much faster.
After Houston, Atlanta has taken in the second largest number of hurricane evacuees, estimated at around 12,000 households. Many who have contacted Catholic Charities were living at or below the poverty line in New Orleans, receive government assistance, and lack basic job skills, transportation and employment. Some had never left that area before.
Catholic Social Services, a division of Catholic Charities, has provided over 1,200 Katrina evacuee families with direct aid, including food, shelter, housing and employment assistance, and made referrals to other sources of help. Krygiel noted that as they collect information and build databases, Catholic Charities is still serving families one at a time, listening to clients and addressing their specific needs. “It’s still individual attention to these families as they come in your office.”
He said FEMA is continually updating its aid policies, and Catholic Charities will now participate with other organizations in its latest program through United Way to facilitate and oversee the relocation of 1,500 Atlanta families into apartments and provide money for rent, utilities and furniture leasing for three months. But as social workers are trying to find affordable apartments, there are only an estimated 700 in Atlanta that have been identified with rates low enough to qualify for what FEMA is willing to pay, he said. Furthermore, currently only those who previously received Department of Housing and Urban Development support can now receive HUD housing vouchers for 18 months.
Krygiel believes it is unrealistic to think everybody is going to be moved out of motels over the next three weeks and thinks FEMA may have to relocate evacuees back to New Orleans or to other areas with more affordable housing than Atlanta. He hopes FEMA will become more far-sighted and agree to provide long-term support for at least a year instead of these “short-term, 90-day rolling windows of support.”
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” continued Krygiel. Those “still living in hotels are the ones that need the most follow-up services to sustain themselves on their own … and to break the cycle of poverty.”
Krygiel stressed his gratitude for some 55 Catholic churches and other lay groups that have already provided or continue to provide generous Katrina support to evacuees, including leading relief trips to the Gulf region, and he particularly encouraged those who have been less involved to partner with Catholic Charities in these new efforts.
“The need is so critical right now that we need more churches involved,” he said.
He cited a recent survey by the DeKalb Housing Authority that about 85 percent of those they’ve assisted are planning to stay in Atlanta.
On the one hand, “most don’t want to go back because there’s nothing to go back to,” he said. On the other hand, many evacuees feel very dislocated.
“They’re just really out of their element. There are gigantic logistical problems to address. Counseling and employment are going to be big issues,” he said.
Some young evacuees who entered Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fairburn are receiving counseling through Catholic Social Services to try and help them succeed in school while coping with their losses. The archdiocese has provided free tuition for this school year to approximately 250 evacuees, and its Village of St. Joseph counseling program holds a support group meeting every Friday.
Krygiel saw the damage firsthand when he traveled to New Orleans Nov. 18-20 with a group of 96 men from St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell to help clean up extensive flood damage to the Church of the Resurrection of Our Lord, which the parish has agreed to sponsor. The pastor, Father Michael Joseph Vinh Nguyen, is the brother of Atlanta priest Father Young Nguyen.
Krygiel, a former Delta pilot, added that it’s important for Catholic Charities to continue to collaborate and strategize with other faith-based and nonprofit organizations, while the local government and private companies must also make it a priority to address evacuees’ needs and keep the awareness of them at the forefront of consciousness. The interfaith collaboration will also prepare agencies to respond more effectively together in future emergencies.
“We’re trying to work with all the agencies to try to support this approaching Jan. 7 date and have some programs in place to respond to the needs that are going to become very evident at that time,” he continued. “Archbishop Gregory wants Catholic Charities to work with other churches in Atlanta to support and do our part in responding to evacuees and bring whatever resources we have available to the table, working with the Regional Council of Churches.”
Catholic Charities of Atlanta is in the process of distributing about $400,000 it has received through Catholic Charities USA, United Way and diocesan funds, and the organization is applying for an additional grant of $3 million.
“This is a great opportunity God has given us to do something extra … to respond to these extra needs of people so completely dependent upon our generosity and charity,” Krygiel said. “And Catholic Charities—their national motto is provide help, create hope. That’s what all people working with evacuees are trying to do—we’re trying to restore hope for people who’ve lost so much.”