LOUISIANA: Bishop Jenkins calls for better case management for Hurricane Katrina’s most vulnerable victims

May 21, 2009

During a May 22 hearing on Capitol Hill, Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana Charles E. Jenkins urged state and government agencies to employ better case management strategies to solve lingering post-Hurricane Katrina housing problems in Louisiana.

Jenkins was part of a four-person panel addressing the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which is chaired by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Other panel members were David Garratt, acting deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); Fred Tombar III, senior advisor to the Secretary for Disaster and Recovery Programs, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); and Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

The purpose of the three-hour hearing, titled, “Still Post-Katrina: How FEMA Decides When Housing Responsibilities End,” was to receive testimony on the status of housing assistance provided after the August 29, 2005, hurricane hit the Gulf Coast.

Of particular concern were FEMA’s thrice-extended Katrina Housing Program, which formally ended on May 1, and HUD’s Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), also extended, which ended in March and will cease making rental payments to participants on August 31.

“The situation we now face is both predicted and predictable,” Norton said. “While these programs have now ended, we still have families without affordable housing situations … We need to know why.” Indefinitely extending the temporary housing or evicting the approximately 5,000 people still living in trailers were not acceptable solutions, she said.

“We’ve called all of you on the same panel so we can resolve this issue once and for all,” she said.

After Garrett and Tombar described how their agencies had gone well beyond statutory requirements to help people find housing, Jenkins, who also heads the Diocese of Louisiana’s Office of Disaster Response, said he was there to “provide contrast to the previous testimony.”

“I ask that you take away the yardstick, the chart, the requirements of these agencies and that you build a needs-based program,” he said. “The problem is one of case management. … I have found the example of supposed case management that has been used by the state and FEMA as inadequate for people who cannot help themselves.”

Commending Jenkins on the “extraordinary work” his diocese has done with private resources, Norton called for the creation of a combined state and federal task force “to work on appropriate ways to develop solutions for the last victims of Katrina.”

“We need a crisis group for these last, most vulnerable residents,” she said.

The new task force will work on new ways to assist those living in FEMA trailers who are attempting to rebuild their properties, Norton said. But she stressed that while people were not going to be put out onto the street, residents who have been offered three housing options within reasonable commuting distance “will have to take them, even if that’s not where you want to be.”

“Even those of us who’ve been fortunate in life do not have optimal resources,” she said.

“Quality case management has got to go hand in hand with direct services,” Jenkins said: “Teach people how and walk with them.”

“This is the testimony that is the most important in this hearing,” Holmes responded. “I think this can be done. It will take sensitivity. It will take the agencies working together.”

The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana comprises 54 congregations in Southeast Louisiana. Jenkins traveled to Washington with three members of his diocese’s Office of Disaster Response, which has been advocating for an extension of case management services to the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita since mid-2007. The Office of Disaster Response has a $2 million budget. Its 15 staff members and numerous volunteers work in three key areas: rebuilding flooded homes, case management, and community organizing and advocacy.