Housing options slim for displaced families
Sept. 30, 2017 at 9:33 p.m.
Updated Oct. 1, 2017 at 10:57 a.m.
Samantha Torres, 23, has been living in a Cuero hotel room for more than two weeks.
The room's tiny fridge is big enough to fit her 2-year-old's milk and juice.
She and her girlfriend lost almost everything when 16 inches of floodwater filled their rental home in the Greens Addition.
Displaced from Hurricane Harvey, this family is one of 293 households relying on hotel vouchers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Victoria hotels not damaged by the storm have been booked solid for weeks; other hotel rooms are far away. And with no immediate transitional housing in the Victoria area, thousands are scrambling to survive and scrape together safer living quarters.
"I'm so glad that we had a car," Torres said.
Immediately after Harvey, the family stayed at a relative's home while they worked commercial cleaning jobs in Victoria.
Without electricity, the home was hectic with all the children outside in the heat.
"We felt like a burden to them," Jasmine Monroe, 24, said minutes after a FEMA inspector visited their old home.
That's why they checked into a hotel room in Gonzales - more than an hour away. Eventually, they relocated to a Cuero hotel room when one became available.
Torres said they hate asking for help, but they had nowhere else to go.
They couldn't access their three-bedroom home for several days after Harvey.
Once they were allowed to return, they found water destroyed their beds, new furniture and clothes.
The plan now is to clean up Monroe's late grandmother's home, but that could take some time - time that Torres worries they don't have. The FEMA voucher program was extended to Oct. 10. A block over from their old home, tents are set up outside.
Mark Longoria, outreach pastor at Faith Family Church, who is leading the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters group, said volunteer recovery groups have about 600 work orders left to complete.
The groups are cleaning up storm debris, tarping damaged roofs and using chainsaws to deal with fallen trees so families can return to their homes.
But many renters will not get the chance to move back into their homes because leases were terminated when the property became uninhabitable.
Others struggle to pay rent because they lost their jobs because of Harvey.
FEMA reports that 5,572 households in Victoria County are currently eligible for the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program.
The aftermath of Harvey is also evident in the public schools of Victoria.
Kidz Connection coordinator Yvonne Rossman said 461 students in the district are homeless.
Rossman said this number is almost triple what VISD usually sees at this point of the school year.
These students - pre-K to 12th grade - are living doubled or tripled up in single-family homes or living in hotels and cars, she said.
Dolly Stokes, executive director of the Victoria County United Way, said nonprofit agencies are still seeing the need for housing for families in Victoria County that were impacted by the hurricane.
"We do still need help," she said.
United Way approved emergency grants to its partner agencies, particularly those trying to address the urgent need for housing.
All of the homeless shelters in Victoria are full.
Mid-Coast Family Services spent its initial $5,000 grant finding housing for about seven families, including a family of eight.
United Way sent another $5,000 to the nonprofit, which has long helped residents find safe housing after domestic violence, sexual assault and homelessness.
Lisa Griffin, director of housing services at Mid-Coast and Victoria Area Homeless Coalition president, said they are trying to find housing for 91 families.
The goal is to get families into a place more permanent than a hotel room, she said.
An emergency grant from Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs for $105,000 is expected in October, said Ginny Stafford executive director.
Community Action Committee of Victoria also has received a small boost in funds designated for those impacted by Harvey.
Stafford said the biggest issue is a lack of affordable housing units in Victoria.
Mid-Coast hopes to hire a part-time employee to handle shelter and housing searches for its clients.
Rick McBrayer, Victoria County emergency management coordinator, said both the city and the county are working with state and federal officials to find a solution.
He said the mayor and county commissioners are filling out surveys with a prioritized list of rebuilding projects to submit to Gov. Greg Abbott's Commission to Rebuild Texas.
The state task force is led by Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who grew up in Placedo in Victoria County.
Tom Halepaska, Victoria city council member, said finding transitional housing for those displaced by Harvey should be a priority.
State and federal authorities have not approached him, and there's nothing on the council agenda yet.
"I feel like we have limited resources to deal with this monumental task after a disaster, and it's something no one ever planned for," he said. "We really aren't set up to handle disasters."
FEMA should be equipped to do so, he said.
But Victoria County Commissioner Danny Garcia said in Precinct 1, which includes Bloomington, many residents are being denied assistance from FEMA.
Instead, he is pursuing funding through foundations and partnering with the Mennonite Disaster Service for long-term recovery - a process he believes may take up to six years.
"It's a fight with everybody right now just trying to get them to understand what we're truly dealing with here," he said.
Garcia said he takes comfort in Sharp running Rebuild Texas because Sharp recognizes the unique challenges in these rural communities.
In his survey, Garcia tried to convey how FEMA isn't able to help many of the residents in Placedo, Bloomington and Silver City because these homes were already not in the best condition.
Another common reason for denial is because the applicant's address doesn't match records.
And others are afraid to ask for help because of their immigration status.
Garcia hasn't heard of any plans to bring in FEMA trailers or any other transitional shelter.
"I'm sitting here wondering, how are we going to get these people on their feet?" he said.
In the meantime, local nonprofit organizations continue to get creative.
Gulf Bend Center, which is the Crossroad's mental health authority, is opening a wing of its Wellness Community on Oct. 1 to the public.
Through a collaboration with Woolson Real Estate, the furnished, utilities paid, efficiency apartments will be leased at market rate.
The apartments were built in 2015 to serve Gulf Bend clients as they work toward independence.
Karen Kennemer, director of the Wellness Community, said applications can be picked up at the apartments at 1009 N. Nimitz St.
"We know there is a tremendous need for housing due to Hurricane Harvey," she said, "and we are here to help in any way we can."
Day 1: Here comes Harvey
Day 2: Brace yourself
Day 3: 'Prayers protect us'
Day 5: 'At least God let us live'
Day 6: 'It's the luck of the draw'
Day 10: The Long Road Ahead (w/video)
Day 12: For some, normal still far away
Day 15: FEMA frustrates Harvey victims
Day 16: Displaced and in disarray
Day 18: Nature interrupted (w/video)
Day 19: 'It was like we had been bombed'