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Uncertainty’s second wave

After living in the D.C. Armory for weeks, many Hurricane Katrina evacuees say they are thinking about their prospects with a greater sense of urgency while feeling less certain of who will help them sort out their future.
Stella Oselem, 78, a Hurrican Katrina evacuee, sorts through her donated and purchased clothes in a new hotel room in Rockville, Md. Oselem hopes to return to New Orleans soon.Kevin Clark / The Washington Post
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The shelter for New Orleans evacuees at the D.C. Armory was about to close, but Stella Oselem wasn't worried. After weeks of kindness from strangers, Oselem, 78, decided to accept an offer to live in a private D.C. home with someone who shared her Jehovah's Witness faith.

But soon after she moved in, her host went on a trip and put her with another family. Then, about a week later, the second host told her to leave to make room for out-of-town family members, Oselem said.

With dwindling options, she found herself this week at a walk-in center for Hurricane Katrina evacuees at D.C. General Hospital. She clutched a white slip of paper, a referral for a hotel in Rockville.

"Thank God I got it," Oselem said of the 14-day hotel voucher sponsored by the American Red Cross. Her social worker said she would try to get Oselem's name on a federal housing list for a senior citizen apartment.

For many of the dozens of hurricane victims who moved out of the armory shelter in the final days before it closed on Oct. 4, the adjustment to post-shelter life has been problematic.

They were living in a cocoon at the armory, a 24-hour facility where social workers and volunteers were always on hand to help them stitch together their tattered lives. There was a daily menu of social outings and free tickets to football and baseball games. Strangers become friends, volunteers like family.

Uncertainty settles in
With that phase now over, many of the evacuees say they are thinking about their prospects with a greater sense of urgency while feeling less certain of who will help them sort out their future. Those living in hotel rooms relish the comfortable beds, cable television and privacy. But without the camaraderie of the shelter, their isolation is palpable.

On the second floor of the Travelodge hotel on Bladensburg Road NE, Nathaniel Williams, 52, was in his pajamas about 11:30 on a recent morning, and the television was tuned to CNN, which flashed images of New Orleans. He said he was thinking about staying in the Washington area and finding a job. But he still had not received the $2,000 in disaster relief funds that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was supposed to provide to evacuees, he said, and he planned to go to the walk-in center to find out why.

When he arrived on the hospital campus, the FEMA representatives had left. He also had missed his caseworker.

"Another day, wasted," Williams said as he left.

Of the 659 hurricane survivors who have received public services at the armory or elsewhere in the District, 88 have been placed in hotels in the Washington region, 60 in the District, 22 in Maryland and six in Virginia, according to the D.C. Department of Human Services, which is tracking their cases.

Cameron Ballantyne, spokesman for the local Red Cross, said the nonprofit organization will be reimbursed by FEMA for the cost of 14-day hotel stays, which can be extended if there is no other housing option. The job of helping the evacuees find permanent places to live falls to city social workers.

Finding what's available
Terry B. Thomas, the D.C. Human Services official who is the on-site manager of the walk-in center, said the caseworkers face challenges in matching evacuees' preferences with what's available, either in public housing or in units offered by private landlords. In addition, he said, some landlords indicate the kinds of tenants they will accept, expressing a preference for families, for example.

David Harold, 51, was one of the last people to leave the armory, taking his two duffel bags and three suitcases of donated clothes and shoes. In his first-floor room at the Travelodge, he sat in bed one morning last week and watched Sidney Poitier fight off the bad guys in "In the Heat of the Night." He was unsure about how to plan his day. He was unsure about a lot of things.

Harold said he had been assigned a social worker, pointing to the name "Daniel McKae" written in a spiral notebook, but he said he had lost the worker's phone number.

His sister, Margie Jackson, 47, called from Metairie, La. He told her he needed some money to buy food. She said she would try to send something by Western Union.

'I don't know what to think, how to think'
Jackson said in a telephone interview that if he were to get some assistance with a ticket or bus ride home, he could stay with her. But a few days later, she said she hadn't been able to reach him again for several days.

"Right now, I'm really worried. They have him way up there, and he don't know anybody," Jackson said. "I don't know what to think, how to think."

The armory housed 250 evacuees when its shelter opened Sept. 6. About 20 people a day are now visiting the walk-in center at D.C. General, including some evacuees who did not stay at the armory, Thomas said.

Thomas said many former armory residents are coming in to apply for services that were available weeks earlier -- disaster assistance funds from FEMA, help with housing or public benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.

Some social workers had difficulty reaching clients for weeks at the armory because the residents were so busy with other activities, Thomas said. Other caseworkers didn't have business cards, making it harder for evacuees to remember whom they spoke with. And with the trauma of the hurricane, Thomas said, some people were just not ready to absorb information and make life-changing decisions.

Malve Abuhatab, Oselem's social worker, has 22 other evacuees in her caseload, as well as 20 other cases from the city's Strong Families Program.

After moving out of homes twice, Oselem seemed less certain about staying in the Washington area, her caseworker said. Abuhatab planned to visit Oselem at the hotel today to explain that it still is not safe to return to her New Orleans neighborhood. Together they would pursue other options.