[S]ix months after the evacuees arrived, the city’s heart seems to be hardening. The signs of a backlash are sometimes subtle. “You’ll hear little snide remarks,” says Edwards. “People will say, ‘The reason you can’t get a job is because you can’t talk right’.” Other times, the reaction is more venomous. Among the nasty examples Dorothy Stukes, an evacuee, cites: graffiti blaring F—- NEW ORLEANS in her apartment complex, schoolkids taunting her grandchildren to “swim in that Katrina water and die” and shopkeepers muttering about survivors’ sucking the public coffers dry.
Ever since the beginning of September, things have been different around here. Depending on what part of the Houston metropolitan area you happen to live in, you may or may not have noticed so much of it, but things are definitely different. It might be something as simple as seeing more Louisiana license plates around town, or it might be as noticeable as hearing more Cajun accents. The underlying reality here, though, is that Katrina has changed the face of the Houston area. Whether it’s for good or ill depends, I suppose, on your perspective. Personally, I rather enjoy most of the changes that Katrina has brought to Houston. I deal with a lot of people from the New Orleans area, and I’ve found most of these folks to be good and decent people. They’ve had a tough road, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to trade places with them. I think the least we can do given what they have endured is to extend a hand to people who have lost so much.
Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, and the downside to our hospitality and generosity is that some folks have taken advantage of that. Houston has opened it’s collective heart to a true cross-section of New Orleans, and we’ve gotten the good, the bad, and the ugly. Shortly after Katrina evacuees hit town, there was anecdotal evidence that Houston’s crime rate was on the rise. Now, the numbers are impossible to ignore. Crime attributed to Katrina refugees has noticeably increased Houston’s crime rate, and for some folks, that has definitely taken the bloom of the rose.
But perhaps no city has been as convulsed as Houston, which took in the greatest number of survivors. As some see it, the city is suffering from “compassion fatigue.” Public services are overwhelmed, city finances are strained and violent crime is on the rise. When city leaders in New Orleans made comments two weeks ago suggesting that they wanted only hardworking evacuees to return, some Houston city-council members erupted in protest‚Äö√Ñ√Æfearing that politicians in the Big Easy were trying to stick Houston with their undesirables. “We extended an open hand to all kinds of people,” says Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. “If they want to return home, it’s their right.” And if they want to stay, she adds, they “need to stand up, get on their feet and get jobs.”
The question, of course, is how long can compassion hold out? The “there but for the grace of God go I” sympathy factor is not, and cannot, be an inexhaustible resource. Eventually, house guests wear out their welcome. You either have to go home or become a part of the community you’re living in. This is not New Orleans (how many kids here were upset that they couldn’t get out of school for Mardi Gras?), and it will never be New Orleans. As Laurence Simon says,
We need more cops in Houston and real amounts of funding for our schools to pay for teaching your kids not to murder each other (and us), not more spin-meisters telling us that everything’s going to be fine when it isn’t.
Or better yet, here’s an even better suggestion: spend money on buses to ship some able-bodied Katrina people without jobs home to help in the cleanup instead of watching soap operas, getting pissed off, and robbing the malls when their Welfare stipend runs out for the month. Greyhound is $55 one-way per person, but I’m sure that it can be cheaper if bought in bulk or chartered… although contracts with the government are always more expensive thanks to corruption and graft and kickbacks.
You really have to feel for people who have lost their home, their way of life, and their livelihood. None of us would want to be walking in these folks’ shoes. The initial rush of compassion and support in September reflected this reality. New Orleans is only six hours east on I-10. But for a jog here or there in Katrina’s path, what happened in New Orleans could easily have happened here. People in Houston recognized that, and, led by Mayor Bill White, we stepped up and did what needed to be done. Would the same thing have happened if Katrina had hit the Houston area? Who knows?
Six months later, most of New Orleans is still a mess, and parts of the city may forever be uninhabitable. The reality is that we may be “stuck” with a large number of Katrina refugees. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they learn to play by our rules. No doubt most of them will. The relative few who can’t and/or won’t, though, are the ones likely to ruin it for everyone. The people of Houston agreed to extend a helping hand to people who clearly needed one. What we didn’t sign up for was to harbor New Orleans’ criminals, thugs, and drug dealers.
Patience and compassion are not infinitely renewable resources. Until, and unless, Houston gets help in dealing with New Orleans’ miscreants, those who came here seeking refuge may well find the welcome mat pulled out from under them.