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Katrina evacuees create tension in some towns

A California mayor's determination to take in hundreds of Katrina evacuees has led to a backlash from within his own community, a trend that's seen in other towns across the country.
Alan Autry, mayor of Fresno, Calif., views the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in Slidell, La., on Sept. 22. Autry has sought to open his city to evacuees, a move that has run into opposition.Tomas Ovalle / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Fresno’s mayor decided to travel to Louisiana and invite 400 hurricane evacuees to relocate in California’s rural Central Valley, other local officials begged him to reconsider.

Mayor Alan Autry’s grand gesture seemed impractical at best — with a quarter of the population in poverty, the unemployment rate set to rise as the fall harvest ends, and 2,000 Hmong refugees still to settle.

County supervisors warned that the city — not the county — would have to pay for their support. But Autry pressed ahead, paying for the trip himself and vowing to get money for hurricane refugees from church groups.

“We are all Americans,” Autry said while in Louisiana. “If something happens like this, you put a map of the U.S. up there, and erase all the state lines.”

Not limited to one town
Still, several other communities share Fresno’s worries.

A Sept. 22 poll conducted by Ipsos, an international polling company, showed that 44 percent of Americans with hurricane evacuees settling in their communities are concerned about the cost of providing education, housing and other services. About one in four respondents were worried about increased crime and job availability.

“Services are hard to come by to begin with,” said Sharon Cossey, deputy executive director for the public housing authority in Oakland, where many residents have taken in family members fleeing from New Orleans and East Texas. “We’re definitely not going to go out and recruit.”

Cities and counties nationwide already lack the resources needed to offer affordable housing to their constituents, said Linda Couch, director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C.

The largest cities have tens of thousands on waiting lists for public housing assistance, including 30,000 in Washington, D.C., 250,000 in New York and 85,000 In Los Angeles, according to a survey the coalition did last year.

“Housing authorities have never been more broke,” Couch said, explaining that federal funding for these services has been curtailed under the Bush administration. “Funds for public housing were not keeping pace with demand, even before Katrina.”

Officials in other communities agreed.

“It would be very difficult to assist families coming from that area,” said Manuel Rosario, deputy director of the housing authority in Richmond, Calif., a relatively poor city of about 100,000 across the bay from San Francisco. Richmond already had 300 families waiting for housing assistance before Katrina, and can only help about a dozen more families, Rosario said.

Red Cross and state officials said about 62,600 hurricane evacuees landed in shelters in 20 states and Washington, D.C. as of early this week, and many more were living on their own or with family, friends or church connections.

Evacuees join Hmong in Fresno
Autry — who gained fame as Bubba Skinner in the television series “In the Heat of the Night” — returned home this week. At least five families have answered his invitation, bringing the total of hurricane evacuees here to about 260.

Public assistance agencies in Fresno and many other urban areas were already struggling before hurricanes Katrina and Rita threatened to add hundreds of people to waiting lists. Roughly 25 percent of Fresno County residents already live in poverty, and unemployment will soar into double digits after the fall harvest.

Some elected officials in the Fresno area do not understand why the mayor insists on bringing more people to the troubled region.

Fresno County is already footing the bill to settle 2,000 Hmong refugees who arrived over the past year from the Wat Tham Krabok camp in Thailand, where they’d been housed since the Vietnam war.

“We understand the mayor’s feeling for helping the victims of the hurricane,” said Bart Bohn, Fresno County’s administrative officer. “But there are lots of people who need services here already.”

Supervisor Henry Perea added: “There’s no question our system is working, but there’s also no question we have finite resources.”