The Big Difficult | Essay | Chicago Reader

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The Big Difficult

Local help for one Katrina evacuee amounts to a wild goose chase.


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When I first met Thomas Lee, an army veteran who'd been washed out of his New Orleans home by Katrina, he was standing outside a Cabrini-Green row house, listening to an official from the Chicago Housing Authority assure him that the city would find him housing and a job. At the time Lee, the focus of my September 16 column, was sharing the two-bedroom apartment of his uncle, a friend of mine, with his sister and her seven-year-old son, who'd also been made homeless by Katrina.

Lee has now been in Chicago almost a month, and not much has changed. He still has no job, and he, his sister, and her son are still camped out on his aunt and uncle's living room floor. "Everyone's been real nice," he says. "But pretty much everywhere I go they tell me to go somewhere else."

Lee, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, came home to New Orleans in May and began taking courses in law enforcement at a community college. When Katrina hit he lost just about everything, escaping with his car, the clothes he was wearing, and a few critical documents, including his army release papers. On September 3 he drove to Chicago to stay with his relatives.

Lee showed up at Cabrini-Green a week later because he'd been told the CHA was going to allow hurricane evacuees to move into one of several vacant row houses, but he'd unwittingly walked into a dispute between public-housing activists and CHA officials. After a standoff between the activists, CHA officials, and police, the activists told Lee to forget about moving into Cabrini. A CHA official suggested he go to Fosco Park, at 13th Street and Racine, where the city's Department of Human Services had set up an office to help evacuees.

On September 15 Lee went to the office. "They asked me what I needed, and I told them housing and a job," he says. "I filled out some forms. They said they would call around to landlords and get back to me. They asked for IDs. I showed them my honorable-discharge paper, but I told them I had lost my Social Security card. They said, 'Don't worry, we'll give you some replacement papers.'" He says they had him fill out a Mayor's Office of Workforce Development--Hurricane Katrina Self Attestation Form and told him, "This is your identification card."

Lee thought the city might be able to find housing for him and his sister. A September 6 press release from Mayor Daley's office had quoted the mayor saying, "We all have an obligation to help our fellow human beings in their time of need. Working together, as a city, we can help bring a semblance of order to the lives of those displaced by the hurricane." The press release also stated, "The City has so far identified 885 units, capable of housing at least 1,500 people. It also has temporary shelter for 2,500 people."

On September 19 Lee went back to Fosco Park. "I hadn't heard from them--they hadn't called," he says. "I talked to a counselor. She asked if I needed to go to a shelter. I said, 'No, I'm staying at my uncle and aunt's. But it's crowded.' She told me, 'Don't worry. You're in the database. We'll call you.'"

He asked about a job, and the woman directed him to a city social services office at 10 S. Kedzie. "I went there, and they made me take a test in math and reading, basically eighth-, ninth-grade stuff," he says. "They had me fill out some forms. They said, 'Don't worry. You're in our database. We'll call you.'"

The same officials also directed him to the post office, which they said was hiring evacuees. Lee went to the main downtown branch. "The lady was really receptive," he says. "She took my information. She said, 'Come back on the 20th--but get here early.'"

On September 20 he was at the post office at 7 AM. "It was a different lady on duty," he says. "I asked for the original lady, but she wasn't in. This new lady told me I had to take a drug test before I could apply. I said OK. She said, 'Can we see your Social Security card?' I said, 'I lost it in the flood.' She said, 'You can't take the drug test without a Social Security card.' I told her I had this paper the city gave me--the city told me it was as good as a Social Security card. She said she didn't know about it. She said she had to make a call and get some information. She said, 'Why don't you wait?'"

He waited until 4 PM. "After all that she said she still didn't know," he says. "She took down my name again and told me she'd get back to me. But I haven't heard from them."

On September 26 Lee went back to the office on South Kedzie. "They had me fill out some more forms, and they told me, 'Don't worry--you're in our database.'" He says they also told him to go to City Hall, where the personnel department was accepting applications for security guard jobs at O'Hare. He drove downtown and parked on LaSalle. He went to one office and was directed to a different one, where he filled out yet another form. "This lady asked me for my driver's license," he says. "I showed it to her. She said, 'You can't take the test.' I said, 'Why not?' She said, 'You can't work for the city unless you live in Chicago.' I told her I'm living with my uncle and aunt. I showed her that form, but she said, 'You'll have to go to the secretary of state's office for a license.'"

He headed off toward the secretary of state's office, and when he walked past his car he noticed it had been ticketed. "I got a $50 parking ticket for parking in a prohibited spot," he says. "I didn't know it was prohibited. I didn't see any signs saying I couldn't park there. There were other cars parked there."

I called Lisa Elkuss, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, to ask how many hurricane evacuees the city had found housing for, whether it had a waiting list, whether Lee and his sister had a chance of getting into one of the 885 units the mayor's office had said were available. She directed me to Monique Bond, spokeswoman for the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, saying, "They're handling these efforts now. You'll have to ask them." I called Bond, but she hasn't called back.

So far Lee's kept his sense of humor. "They told me they were going to get me all these things, but all I got is a parking ticket," he says, chuckling. "My uncle tells me that's how it goes in Chicago."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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