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S.F. Hosing Authority 

City government promised Katrina victims a haven, then it gave some of them the shaft

Wednesday, Oct 19 2005
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Restaurant cook Tyra Huntley remembers waking up the morning after Hurricane Katrina, relieved to find the rains had stopped, the strong winds were dying down, and her children -- Tashara, John, Dewayne, and Whitney -- had enjoyed a fair night's sleep.

By afternoon, however, water from broken levees began swallowing Huntley's home eight blocks south of the New Orleans Country Club -- a house occupied by four generations of her family.

"First it was at the steps. I'd just purchased a car. And that was soon underwater, too," Huntley recalls. "This is a two-story house. And soon that's underwater, too. Thankfully, some volunteers got us on boats."

During the next few days, Huntley and her children made their way west. Huntley suffered a brief panic when she was separated for a short time from one of her children. Police in a small town on the way to Baton Rouge chased them away with guns, she says. Between Baton Rouge and Houston, Huntley and her children reunited serendipitously with her brother and his family, and in Mamou, La., the nine of them boarded a bus for San Francisco.

The ride was the happiest leg of Huntley's journey, because she believed her family's ordeal would soon end: After all, this city's mayor had made a promise to welcome Katrina victims, to provide housing, health care, and other services in a coordinated, generous way.

A month ago, Mayor Gavin Newsom made public pronouncements, issued press releases, and described a program branded "SF Gives" on the home page of his official mayoral Web site. "Managed by the Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security and the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, SF Gives is the Mayor's Directive to all City agencies to be responsive to requests for assistance" from Katrina victims, the message at the top of Newsom's home page said at the time.

Things didn't turn out that way, however.

A month after boarding the bus, Huntley sits in a Tenderloin drop-in center for homeless women, recounting a tale of how San Francisco government failed to follow through on its pledge to welcome those displaced by the hurricane.

In an account offered by Huntley -- and echoed by social assistance workers, church leaders, homeless activists, and a member of the Board of Supervisors who has monitored the city's Katrina response effort -- the mayor touted a coordinated safety net of city services for Gulf State refugees that has not materialized, leaving some victims to rely on private aid-givers such as churches.

"My office and other offices were besieged with people who wanted to provide housing," says Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. "But there was no coordinated effort or repository in the city to provide for that. You could see a great disconnect between nonprofit agencies and local government, and it was brutal to watch.

"I think it was well-known what the federal government was and was not willing to do. And the city went ahead with the message of open arms. We should have taken the next step of due diligence and prepared accordingly. Not invite, or tacitly invite, people and not be ready for them. It bespeaks of an empty promise," Mirkarimi adds. "The Mayor's Office is extremely savvy at spin and public relations. This was an incident where they saw an opportunity and ran with it from a PR perspective, and it got a lot of people excited. Where it left off was in its ability to plug people in so something good could come to fruition."

Deneen Jones, a case worker at Oshun Center, the drop-in shelter, says she spent several days attempting to find housing for the Huntleys and other Katrina victims, after the San Francisco Housing Authority either turned victims away or failed to provide housing swiftly to families faced with living on the street.

"We don't understand why Gavin told them to come here. [San Francisco city agencies] don't seem to have the housing," Jones says. "It's unfair to relocate the families out here and put them into a bad situation. If you're going to invite other people here, you should uphold your contract with them."

The Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, senior pastor of Bethel African Episcopal Methodist Church, says his congregation has provided apartments for five families who could not rapidly find lodging with the city's Housing Authority or with the help of the Mayor's Office of Housing.

"The Housing Authority operates through a great bureaucracy, and nothing can get done without consulting several areas of responsibility and accountability," Boyd notes. "We did not have to deal with the red tape and bureaucratic process that other conglomerates might."

It bears noting that the Byzantine and incomplete network of Katrina relief programs offered by the U.S. government through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and widely chronicled failures by aid providers such as the Red Cross, have compounded the problem of San Francisco's lack of a coherent strategy to care for Katrina refugees in this city. But it's nonetheless appalling that our local response to the crisis would play out as a textbook confirmation of the right-wing Republican belief that the private sector is better-suited than government to address social problems.

In Louisiana and in Washington, D.C., the Katrina aftermath laid bare government disarray due to negligence and corruption.

In San Francisco, the faraway Gulf storm has played a similar role.

During the Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom eras, leaders seem to have lost sight of the notion that city bureaucracies should exist not as employment programs for people who work there, but rather to provide services to people living here. Newsom's penchant for public-relations grandstanding has done nothing to improve city departments' ability to get things done.

Last Thursday, a spokeswoman at the mayor's press office referred me to Laura Adleman, supposedly the coordinator for city services offered Katrina victims under SF Gives. I asked her what coordinating the city had done.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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