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Charitable surge may help Utah
By Kirsten Stewart
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published September 12, 2005 12:43 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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It seems everyone is moved to activism by Hurricane Katrina.

Nationally, fundraising has set a blistering pace. Nine days after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the American Red Cross registered $439.5 million in donations, compared with $141.5 million for 9/11 and $97.3 million for the Indonesian tsunami at the nine-day mark.

Here in Utah, after logging 7,000 offers of aid from teddy bears to rental properties, state officials started turning donors away. Welfare agencies bent rules and bypassed red tape to get public assistance and housing to the more than 500 evacuees who were sheltered here.

Advocates for the poor - people experiencing their own private hurricanes - are pleased with the outpouring of support and hope the good will trickles down to Utah families in crisis.

But they wonder, if communities can rally to help the homeless in a pinch, what's to prevent them from doing it routinely?

There is a tendency to assume people are homeless because "they're lazy or have personality disorders," said Heather Tritten, of the low-income advocacy group Utah Issues. "We have people in quiet crisis. But because we don't see it on TV, or watch their houses submerged, we don't worry about them."

If there is a lesson to be learned from Katrina, Tritten said, it's that homelessness is the ultimate burden of poverty, not the result of a single unlucky blow.

"Many of the folks who couldn't evacuate were those falling through society's cracks to begin with," she said.

Utah charities report that Katrina has served to enhance, rather than detract from, local giving.

A week into the Katrina relief effort, United Way of Utah held its annual "day of caring," in which 2,500 volunteers performed 15,000 hours of yard work, home repairs and other public services.

"This shows how people can step up and continue to respond locally," said the organization's spokeswoman, Marti Money.

But state agencies can't say the same. In a true departure from business as usual, Utah's Department of Workforce Services (DWS) processed evacuee applications for food stamps, welfare, job assistance and unemployment in 36 hours, as opposed to the conventional 20 days.

The state also picked up the tab in the hopes of being reimbursed by the federal government.

DWS director Tani Downing would like to promise a quicker turnaround for Utah clients, but says, "We had to put a lot of people on overtime to make this happen. If there was funding to provide for additional staffing, we could do it on a daily basis."

David Nelson, disabled by the symptoms of his adult-onset cystic fibrosis, has spent the past four years applying for a "patchwork of public programs," but isn't bothered by the extraordinary effort.

"We should meet extraordinary disasters with extraordinary response," said Nelson, of Salt Lake City. "I'm pleased Utah stepped up and that our corporate leaders are joining the distribution of needed food and supplies, even music lessons and teddy bears."

But there is a limit to Nelson's charitable outlook. He is bothered by a decision to move hurricane survivors ahead of Utahns on the waiting list for rental assistance.

Salt Lake City's Housing Authority has 4,000 people on its waiting list. The average wait ranges from six months for senior housing to three to five years for federal Section 8 rent vouchers.

Nelson says he is lucky to be able to live with family, and acknowledges he isn't anywhere near the top of the list. Currently, the elderly, disabled, victims of domestic violence and people working at least 20 hours a week or in job training are given preference.

But he says, "I was devastated to hear we mean less to a Utah administrator than people who live outside the state."

City housing director Rosemary Kappes took the brunt of criticism, but was joined by seven other housing authorities along the Wasatch Front who also are giving priority to hurricane survivors.

"I sure have made a lot of people mad. Any time you're forced to choose one needy group over another, it's an unhappy decision," said Kappes. "But it's a discussion that needed to take place. What would we do if there was an earthquake here? I certainly hope that Colorado would open up their arms to our people in need."

Some evacuees were already on section 8 vouchers, which are transferable. But state Housing Director Richard Walker says 95 percent of the 112 voucher applications registered at Camp Williams are new. Those vouchers will pay to house 258 evacuees.

"These people have lost everything. They have no money, no transportation and some have lost family members," said Walker.

Housing authorities also sped up inspections, bypassed ID requirements and agreed to prorate rent for evacuees.

The state has provided no estimate for how much Katrina is taxing its social services systems.

Housing officials are leveraging the hurricane for more federal, state and local funding. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked Congress for millions in disaster relief that might be available to states sheltering refugees.

But that's a wager that might not pay off. The Associated Press reported Friday that Republicans are going ahead with long-standing plans to trim Medicaid, food stamps and other benefits even though party moderates are balking at cutting programs that aid the poor.

Less clear is whether the Bush administration's tax cuts are still on the table.

At least one housing expert believes the relief effort may improve the way this nation combats homelessness.

"Katrina proved large shelters are not intended as even intermediate-length solutions. They are for emergency accommodation and should be followed with emergency cash and rental assistance," said University of Pennsylvania Professor Dennis Culhane.

kstewart@sltrib.com

Evacuees update

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is asking all of the Hurricane Katrina evacuees who are staying at Camp Williams - or who have moved out of the shelter - to update their contact information to receive FEMA disaster assistance.

This can be done over the Internet or by telephone: http:// http://www.fema.gov or 1-800-621-3362 (1-800-462-7585 for the speech or hearing impaired). Because of the high volume during the day, FEMA recommends logging onto its Web site or calling between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.



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