Housing Policy

Escape from FEMAville

Housing evacuees is no job for the feds


In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, federal and local authorities have proven themselves incapable of reacting to dire predictions of destruction, learning from previous catastrophes, or letting more capable organizations lend a hand. An agency led largely by public relations execs rather than emergency management personnel, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has botched even the one disaster it should have been able to cope with: a PR nightmare. On September 4, then-head Michael Brown said the agency was "pulling out all the stops" for its next task, temporary housing. Who wants to pile in first?

FEMA has already caught flak for moving slowly on housing, but if the history of centralized refugee housing is any indication, the agency's sloth may help more than it harms. Pictures of evacuee housing situations are just beginning to emerge: The agency says shelter will take the form of trailers, military bases, and at least four cruise ships. In The New York Times, Freedom Tower planner Daniel Libeskind suggested a "low-cost modular shelter" he'd designed, and architect Shigeru Ban pitched "temporary housing made of cardboard tubes and plastic beer crates."

This is bad. There are few surer ways to make people sick, hopeless, and stripped of agency than to pack them into collective camp-like conditions for an indefinite time period. Katrina's displaced persons are not technically "refugees" (as the law defines the term), and there's a levee-sized space between any international refugee and a New Orleans native waiting for his home to emerge from five feet of toxic water. But current international practices are a how-to guide for turning temporary refugee situations into protracted hellholes. "Warehousing" is the risk aid workers run when they throw up ad hoc housing with no clear plan to dismantle it. Merrill Smith, editor of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants' (USCRI) World Refugee Survey, defines it as "the practice of keeping refugees in protracted situations of restricted mobility, enforced idleness, and dependency—their lives on indefinite hold." For refugees in Africa and Asia over the past twenty years, the transition from camp to resettlement has taken longer than at any point in history. To some extent, this is a result of donors pouring aid into camps rather than integration, keeping refugees contained rather than compensating host countries for absorbing them. Smith describes the change as a shift from "viewing refugees as agents of democracy to seeing them as passive aid recipients."

The results are ugly, as USCRI documents. Throwing refugees together spreads disease, engenders mental health problems, and creates security issues. Camp security has a tendency to turn militant, and authoritarian law enforcement can lead to "fatalistic paralysis" that makes starting over more inconceivable as time passes. Worst of all, isolation prevents displaced people from forming the social networks that help them spring back. It's tough to job hunt when you're packed in with thousands of other homeless, jobless, increasingly passive people.

Temporary housing goes up faster than it comes down. Abroad, host governments develop bureaucracies that depend on an inflow of aid destined for refugee camps; some camps in Africa have endured for decades. Here in the U.S., mobile homes set up after last year's Hurricane Charley still fill a corner of Punta Gorda; the village has been dubbed FEMAville. In a Slate piece on the history of emergency housing, Witold Rybczynski writes, "relief can be the enemy of reconstruction." He's talking about homes and sidewalks, but the wrong kind of relief can keep people from reconstructing their lives as well.

Following the lawlessness of Katrina's immediate aftermath, some shelters have already turned uncomfortably authoritarian. Reporting from a community college-turned-shelter in Colorado, The Denver Post describes "roadblocks, security guards and enough armed police officers to invade Grenada." Reporters spoke to storm survivors through a fence. Anecdotal reports tell of authorities restricting freedom of movement and keeping evacuees from so much as cooking their own food.

What's the alternative? Consider how we treat actual refugees. The U.S. absorbs tens of thousands of displaced people every year. We do not stick them on cruise ships or ask famous architects to build cardboard houses for them. Instead, they enter a nexus of volunteer, religious, mutual aid, and ethnic organizations. NGOs help match immigrants to mentors, and church groups collect clothes and food. The federal government provides cash for at least eight months, but civil society helps people form support networks that will get them clothed, housed, employed, and rooted in a community. A public-private partnership isn't a panacea, but it's no Superdome, either.

Shortly after the disaster, The Washington Post ran a story about Anya Maddox, a New Orleans native who barricaded herself in during the storm, swam to a friend's house, caught a ride out of town and talked her way into a job at a Louisiana Waffle House. "I'm a survivor," she told the Post. Maddox may not realize it, but her triumph was twofold: She escaped both the wrath of a deadly storm and the inertia of a bungling relief effort.