Katrina Evacuees' Welcome Wearing Thin in Houston

Seven months after taking in about 200,000 Louisiana residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, Houstonians aren't feeling so hospitable anymore.

Many people in the nation's fourth-largest city complain that the influx has led to more murders and gang violence, long lines at health clinics and bus stops, and fights and greater overcrowding in the schools. Some of those claims are debatable, but the sentiment is real.

"We still feel sorry for them. We still want to help them, but it's to the point where enough is enough," said Torah Whitaker, 25, of Missouri City, a Houston suburb.

Houston received national acclaim for accepting more Katrina evacuees than any other U.S. city. It gave them apartments, houses and health care, and held job fairs for them. Celebrities visited schools and brought gifts for the youngsters.

About 150,000 refugees remain in the greater Houston area, which has more than 4 million people. While some evacuees plan to return to Louisiana, thousands have secured their own housing and jobs and plan to make Houston their home.

But a survey last month of 765 Houston-area residents by Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg found that three-fourths believed that helping the refugees put a "considerable strain" on the community, and two-thirds blamed evacuees for a surge in violent crime. Half thought Houston would be worse off if evacuees stayed, while one-fourth thought the city would be better off.

The murder rate between the Katrina refugees' arrival in September and last week was up nearly 32 percent from the same period a year ago, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt said. He said some of that is attributable to Katrina refugees, but added: "I don't mean to send the message that all Katrina evacuees are involved in drug dealing, gangs and violent offenses."

Refugees were involved — as victims or suspects — in 35 of the 212 murders in that time period, Hurtt said. In January, Houston police arrested eight members of rival New Orleans gangs in the murders of 11 fellow refugees. Earlier this month, half of the 18 people arrested in an auto theft sweep were evacuees.

Angelo Edwards, a storm victim from New Orleans and vice chairman of the Katrina Survivors Association, said most evacuees are law-abiding citizens trying to find jobs.

"The majority of evacuees are not thugs, looters and hoodlums," Edwards said. "We'd like for the people of Houston to walk in our shoes." If Hurricane Rita had taken a slightly different course, he added, the people of Houston "just as well could have been in our situation."

Some 21,000 students from Louisiana now attend southeastern Texas schools, including roughly 6,000 in Houston. Across the state, Louisiana children scored considerably worse than Texas youngsters on a state exam and thousands could be held back, imposing even higher costs on overburdened districts that are still awaiting federal reimbursement for helping the storm victims.

Tatiana Boone, a Houston 11th-grader, attends one of several schools where brawls have broken out between local teens and Katrina refugees.

"A city that sleeps and a city that don't sleep — it just does not mix. It's two different cultures," the 17-year-old said, comparing Houston with the more boisterous New Orleans.

She complained that the Katrina refugees are getting preferential treatment, even though some of her classmates are even poorer than they are. Storm victims were taken on shopping sprees to buy clothes and were showered with other gifts after they arrived.

"I feel like they shouldn't have to use that as an excuse all the time, as like, `Oh, I'm an evacuee from New Orleans,' so you get this and you get that," Tatiana said.

Just after the August hurricane, the Harris County Hospital District, the agency that runs the public hospitals and health clinics in Houston and surrounding Harris County, treated 15,000 evacuees in two weeks at the Astrodome, but now sees about 800 extra patients a month, said spokesman Bryan McLeod.

The agency treats 1.2 million patients a year, so apart from the first few weeks, the number of evacuees is "not overwhelming" and is not delaying care for Houston residents, McLeod said.

Still, treating refugees has cost $11.6 million, and the district has been reimbursed only $1.6 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Medicaid, he said. The district has dipped into reserve funds, he said.

Bus ridership at the Metropolitan Transit Authority was up 12 percent in October through December from the same period a year ago. Spokeswoman Raequel Roberts attributed the increase to evacuees as well as high gas prices.

Keesha Ramos of the Houston suburb of Sugar Land said she does not believe evacuees have been getting help at the expense of Houston residents. She said people should have more compassion for the storm victims.

"They're not thinking about how long it's going to take one family to get back on their feet," said Ramos, 34, a bank information analyst.

Mayor Bill White said that most Houston residents are still proud of the city's response and that only a small percentage of refugees are "bad apples."

"Everyone understands when you evacuate a major American city that some of those people will be those who committed a crime or have special needs," he said.