Tuesday, September 27, 2005 | The federal government has promised millions of dollars in assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims. But what do victims need most? Almost all urgently need a home, at least a temporary one, and that help has been slow in coming and, in my view, disjointed.

Take Sandy Brown from Pascagoula, Miss. Mr. Brown told San Diego Housing Commission staff (who met him at the Red Cross emergency center last week) that his house was damaged by the hurricane. He’s a ship fitter, and he has no job for the time being, he said. He hopes his company will be able to reopen soon, but in the meantime he came to San Diego because he heard there were ship building jobs here. For now he has a 30-day hotel voucher. Asked if a six-month emergency rental assistance voucher would be better, his eyes lit up. “That would be wonderful,” he said.

That’s what Earnest Harrel says, too. When he retired from his job as a crane operator, he was doing just fine with his $1,000 a month Social Security check. After all, the house he had rented for more than 40 years in New Orleans cost $300 a month. But then the hurricane hit. Mr. Harrel wanted to stay in his home. But helicopter pilots with loud speakers were telling folks to get out. He ran to a high ground point (an as yet undamaged levee wall) and was rescued. After medical treatment, he was flown to San Diego because he has relatives here. “I don’t ever want to go back to New Orleans now,” he said, his voice shaking. “I just want to stay here in a little place to be near my relatives.” But there are no emergency rental assistance vouchers (which in cases such as his might be made permanent) to help him.

Hurricane survivors who have healthy bank accounts and/or excellent insurance policies presumably can afford to rent homes until they decide to rebuild or buy in another location. But what about middle- and lower-income folks without the means to rent for an extended period of time?

What thousands of families need is temporary emergency rental assistance vouchers (which were issued after the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California). The U.S. Senate unanimously approved a measure to issue 350,000 of them. But the House and the President must agree, and there is a chance the will not. (Reportedly, the government has ordered manufactured homes instead and is also giving cash for three-months’ rent to some families, but it seems the tried and true emergency housing vouchers will only be provided to those who already had such assistance before the hurricane.)

If you could afford to provide a six-month or one-year temporary home in an existing apartment – in a location of their choice – to a Hurricane Katrina family, wouldn’t you do it? Individually, for most of us, that kind of generosity is beyond our means. But collectively, through our government, we can do it. I urge readers to join me in writing or e-mailing our President and Congressional representatives to ask them to approve emergency vouchers. Right away.

Sal Salas is chaiman of the San Diego Housing Commission.

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