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Katrina Evacuees Seek Jobs, Anchors

Houston Counselors Struggle to Help Arrivals in Already Tight Market

January 08, 2006|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — The two women never met but probably crossed paths in an abandoned supermarket -- now a disaster recovery center -- on the south side of town where railroad tracks crisscross the terrain.

Monique Moses and Pauline Gallien spend lots of time at the center, on opposite sides of the partition. Moses is a Hurricane Katrina evacuee from New Orleans. She is looking for a job. Gallien is a longtime Houstonian whose job is to find jobs for people like Moses. Right now, neither is having much success.

Their frustration embodies the question now facing this East Texas metropolis, which took in more evacuees -- an estimated 200,000 -- than any city outside of Louisiana: What is to be done with the thousands who, with their basic needs met, face the most vital step in their long-term recovery?

"I need to work," says Moses, 26. "I can't be like them that sit on their butts all day. I gotta have something to do. I just don't know if this is the place I can do it."

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Before Katrina wrecked her hometown, Moses worked as a shift manager at a Radley's restaurant. Both her apartment and the restaurant were destroyed.

Four months after Katrina, she and her two daughters are resettled in southwest Houston. Her girls, ages 5 and 6, are enrolled in school, and their apartment has most of the accouterments of a home. The only missing piece is a livelihood to keep it all together.

Moses says she has pounded the pavement and filled out applications everywhere: McDonald's, Wendy's and the Home Depot, to name a few places. She has worn her best "customer service" face, smiling until her cheeks hurt. Day after day.

Only one employer, a Jack-in-the-Box, gave her an interview. The manager offered $6 an hour, and Moses told him she needed at least $8 an hour to survive. He never called back.

Her only lifeline has been the disaster-recovery center operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She has come to know the building well: a flat, sprawling, swarming place where workers from dozens of organizations stand by to help evacuees on almost every aspect of reestablishing their lives.

Moses has gone there seeking help on numerous fronts -- housing, transportation, insurance claims -- but never stopped at the cluster of tables devoted to placing people in jobs. Moses, like many evacuees, has never used an employment service.

If she had stopped, she probably would have met Gallien.

Gallien, 40, works for a nonprofit employment agency called the WorkSource, whose main service is matching clients with jobs listed in a database. Gallien's station sits near the front entrance of the FEMA center.

From 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, WorkSource staffers sit behind folding tables, equipped with the barest of tools -- a notepad, telephone and computer -- greeting every evacuee with, "How can I help you?"

Even now, Gallien and her three colleagues see 100 to 130 evacuees a day. Some need help filling out unemployment forms or putting together a resume; many have just moved into more stable housing and are beginning to seek work.

"The typical person we're seeing now is lower-skilled, a menial worker or restaurant worker, with a lower education level, not as strong in the communication skills," Gallien says. "A lot of times they got by doing odd jobs and got paid on the side, so they don't have an employment history."

Gallien says these clients "face a real challenge" in Houston, where about 20% of residents live below the poverty line.

"Houston was full of people with the same backgrounds before the evacuees got here," she says. "For every low-skilled evacuee, there are two Houston people with the same skill level competing for the same job."

A recent federal survey suggests that 21% of Katrina evacuees actively seeking work are still unemployed.

The proportion could be higher in Houston, where the job market, so tied to energy production, remains tight. The city's unemployment rate, roughly 6% in November, has consistently hovered above the national average.

"The folks with skills in the oil and gas industry found jobs," says M. Ray Perryman, head of a Texas economics analysis company. "People who fill low-wage, service- and retail-type jobs -- it might take awhile for the economy to absorb them."

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A reciprocal relationship has long existed between New Orleans and Houston, 327 miles apart. Houstonians traveled to New Orleans for culture and cuisine; New Orleanians went to Houston for jobs and better schools.

So when the storm hit, and New Orleanians needed a place to go, Houston put out the welcome mat and busloads of evacuees headed in this direction.

Houston, population 2 million, offered the most generous resettlement program of any large U.S. city.

An enormous city-led task force, using a voucher program, paid for 12 months of housing for more than 100,000 evacuees.

In mid-December, Mayor Bill White declared that Houston was "full."

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