Published July 07, 2006
HOUSTON – In the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, Katrina evacuee Samuel Smith sits on a donated futon and watches a borrowed television in a subsidized apartment the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided for six months. The unemployed truck driver just started looking for work.
That would infuriate U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who wants what he calls "deadbeat" evacuees from New Orleans out of his city.
"Time has long since passed for the able-bodied people from Louisiana to either find a job, return to somewhere in Louisiana or become Houstonians," said Culberson, whose district neighbors the city's southwest pocket where many of 150,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees settled in Houston.
"You have to make an effort not to have a job in Houston," he said.
Labor analysts tend to agree.
But jobless evacuees, keenly aware that Houston is feeling far less compassionate than it was 10 months ago, insist that finding work in the nation's fourth-largest city isn't as simple as Houston's 5 percent unemployment rate might suggest.
Neither the city nor FEMA track unemployed evacuees, but a Zogby poll commissioned by the city in March found that 85 percent of the 606 refugees surveyed were out of work. Sixty percent said they were looking for jobs.
The spotlight on unemployed evacuees intensified in May. Houston Mayor Bill White, standing beside newly re-elected New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, said evacuees could answer Nagin's plea to return home, or they were welcome to stay in Houston — if they got jobs.
White said he wanted refugees "looking for work wherever they can find work," which city officials say shouldn't be a problem given a healthy local economy and about 64,000 new jobs added in the past year.
Job counselor Ayodele Ogunye of WorkSource, the city's employment assistance program, said jobless evacuees complain about the overwhelming bus and rail systems that make navigation difficult, or the bureaucratic holdups like professional licenses that are invalid in Texas.
But some of it, Ogunye said, is in their heads.
The fear of a new hurricane season worried one of her clients so much that "it was like it set her back 10 months." Others don't know how to market themselves or lack confidence, which Ogunye thinks is traced to feelings of isolation in the "evacuee" corner of their apartment complexes, where no one socializes like their lifelong neighbors in New Orleans.
"I cannot help to wonder if (the unemployment) has anything to do with the uniqueness of the community," Ogunye said. "It seems like some have never had to make choices or decide for themselves."
There also might be some validity to evacuees' suspicions of employers passing on them for a fear they'll turn around and go home to Louisiana. At Career and Recovery Resources, which has tried finding work for 1,600 evacuees, manager Yvonne Chapman said she's had employers tell her they're "afraid they might go back home in six months."
Low-skill blue collar workers are the bulk of WorkSource's remaining clients from New Orleans.
But some white collar evacuees are struggling, too: Unic Little, 50, has a master's degree but says she hasn't gotten one response from more than 50 Internet job postings ranging from human resources positions to administrative work.
But truck driver Smith and his wife, Marion, hadn't looked for work because they don't know yet where they'll end up and the nearest bus stop is about a half-mile away.
Nearby, Lynette Scott uses the bus but complains it takes two hours to get to interviews. Her strong resume that includes running a New Orleans janitorial company hasn't helped in the dozen postings she's answered, so she started a T-shirt company out of her FEMA apartment.
"If I can't find work from other sources, I'll make my own work," said Scott, who designs children's shirts printed with their parent's contact information in case they get separated, an idea inspired by Katrina. "I'm not looking for a handout."
Disaster unemployment assistance expired on June 4 for about 83,000 Katrina evacuees. Among them were Granderson Johnson, 46, a former Wal-Mart photo technician who moved back to Louisiana a few days after he stopped getting his assistance check for $108 a week. Applications he dropped off at a handful of photo labs near his apartment never panned out, he said.
"It got to a point where things just weren't happening," Johnson said.
The WorkSource building — like the attitude of Houstonians — is much different than in the weeks after busloads of Louisiana residents were brought to the city. Gone is a table near the front door where evacuees could collect information on assistance programs, and the office no longer has a backlog of sympathetic employers eager to hire refugees.
"The attitude has shifted," said Rod Snyder, manager of WorkSource's southwest office.
WorkSource reports the agency has placed about half of the 24,000 refugees who sought work through their programs and training. Most of the other half abandoned the training or lost touch. Asked if there was any reason why a person who wanted a job in Houston couldn't find one, Ron Rodriguez, director of operations for WorkSource, said, "No."
That sentiment is shared at WorkSource's southwest office, where about seven of every 10 clients Ogunye meets is a Katrina refugee. The WorkSource building conspicuously stands out on a street of fast-food restaurants and strip malls — some with "Help Wanted" on the marquees.
Ogunye said "one does begin to wonder" why so many are still jobless after 10 months. Fellow counselor Melodie Lee was more blunt: "(Katrina) was awful, but let's move on. It is time you had a Plan B."