Katrina evacuees overstay welcome in Houston

Published May 31, 2007

HOUSTON - Nineteen months after Hurricane Katrina sent evacuees from New Orleans streaming into Houston, more than 5, 000 heads of households among them are still unemployed despite the city's booming economy, officials say.

The number of jobless is contributing to the sense among some Houston-area residents that the storm's victims are a drain on the city and have worn out their welcome.

After the storm, a quarter-million evacuees were brought to Houston. Even before the storm, many were poor, unemployed and on welfare or food stamps.

About 100, 000 are still here. They have settled in more or less permanently.

About 12, 000 families are still getting federal aid for housing, the city said. Of that group, about 5, 500 heads of households are unemployed, not counting those who are elderly and disabled, city officials said.

Houston's economy is hot because of the booming oil and gas industry. City officials say there are 2-million job openings.

Republican Rep. John Culberson said the evacuees should have their benefits cut off if they don't get a job.

"We're a charitable nation and Houston in particular has a big heart, and we have already gone way above and beyond the call of duty to help our neighbors, " Culberson said. "It's time for everyone who can work to get to work."

Sixty-five percent of Houstonians surveyed this year by Rice University said the influx of evacuees has been a "bad thing" for their city. Some blame them for a surge in violent crime. The number of homicides jumped from 275 in 2004 to 376 in 2006.

The government is offering considerable help. FEMA-paid housing has been extended to 2009, and federal officials will move an evacuee closer to a job. Thirty hours of work a week earns an evacuee free child care.

But even with help, evacuees say, there are still many obstacles to landing a job.

Houston is sprawling metropolitan area, with a web of highways; New Orleans is more compact, and many residents there relied on public transportation - something not always available in their new city. Also, some single mothers are separated from members of their extended family and can no longer rely on them for child care.

Odessa Jarreau, 61, said that just being an evacuee is making it harder to find a job.

"Once we put in the applications and they see the Louisiana connection, they don't even consider it. We don't even get calls back, " she said. "It drains you, you know? You feel like you're not worth anything."