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Broken Promise

Every morning, Father Vien The Nguyen wakes up to the sight of the FEMA trailer park meant for Mary Queen of Vietnam parishioners displaced by Hurricane Katrina. And every morning he feels a surge of frustration that even as his parishioners struggle with FEMA over their applications, at least half of the nearly 200 units installed across the road from the church have gone to outsiders.

"My people are still waiting for trailers," Nguyen says. "They want to come back, they want to rebuild, but the trailers are full and they have nowhere to go."

The trailer park is situated on 13 acres of land owned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Under an agreement brokered by Nguyen in January, the archdiocese agreed to loan FEMA the property essentially free of charge, leasing it for $10 a year. Additionally, the 3,000 parishioners of Mary Queen of Vietnam agreed to kick in $80,000 from church coffers to cover liability insurance for the site, a considerable sum for a community devastated by the hurricane.

Father Vien The Nguyen stands in the pagoda-style entrance to a FEMA trailer park across the street from the Mary Queen of Vietnam church, whose parishioners helped pay for the park in exchange for preferential treatment in occupying the trailers. Nguyen says FEMA has reneged on that deal.

In return, according to the three-page lease, FEMA agreed "to provide temporary shelter on the premises in order that the Lessor may assist in providing housing to Mary Queen of Vietnam Parishioners and other New Orleans Vietnamese community members as determined by Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish as disaster assistance recipients granted occupancy of housing units established within the emergency housing facility."

When the park finally opened in late July, Nguyen provided FEMA with a list of names of about 300 members of his parish who wanted trailers. But Stephen Reams, FEMA's supervisor of mobile homes operations for the Katrina-affected area, says that by the time his agency got the list, many of the applicants had either found housing or did not qualify.

"They went through the same application process as everybody else," Reams says. "There were some that just weren't eligible." FEMA spokesman Ron Simpson adds that despite the language in the contract, the park was never meant for the sole use of Mary Queen of Vietnam parishioners and other Vietnamese people. "We don't single out Vietnamese Catholics for exclusive use any more than we would Polish Protestants," Simpson says. "We don't exclude folks from living in that park if they aren't a parishioner of that church."

In August, approximately 8,000 applicants were waiting for trailers in Louisiana, Reams says. In late September, he began admitting applicants outside of the Mary Queen of Vietnam list into the park. By mid-November, the park was nearly full.

Father William Maestri, spokesman for the New Orleans Archdiocese, says FEMA has violated its agreement. "In the contract, FEMA gave preferential treatment to the parishioners," Maestri says. "Our question is why did you sign such a lease of exclusivity for preferential treatment and then break the lease?"

Stacy Seicshnaydre, clinical instructor at the Tulane Law Clinic and former general counsel of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, was given a copy of the contract to review for this article. She says that the language in the contract "reads like an exclusive agreement between FEMA and Mary Queen of Vietnam." Such an agreement could be permissible under the Federal Fair Housing Act, she says, if it falls under a narrow exception that enables "a religious organization to give preference to people who are members of their organization as long as the organization does not discriminate based on race, color or national origin."

The FEMA trailer park is located in Village de l'Est, a predominantly Vietnamese-American community located in eastern New Orleans. More than a year after the hurricane, housing tracts, shopping malls, schools and a hospital in the area remain empty. A Six Flags amusement park appears to be abandoned. The Village de l'Est neighborhood is an exception. Approximately 90 percent of the residents belong to Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, according to Nguyen, and by his estimate at least two-thirds of them have come back. The community was one of the first in the city to begin returning after the hurricane, with shopkeepers and families banding together to gut and rebuild their homes and businesses.

This can-do attitude impressed Stephen DeBlasio, a senior manager for FEMA in New York City who was called in after Katrina to work temporarily as chief of disaster housing operations in Louisiana. Despite the lack of water, sewage and power lines at the site, DeBasio was eager to help Nguyen get his community back. "They were willing to stand on their own," he says. "If there was a doctor in the community, he was offering services. People who used to have stores were bringing in food. They were trying from the start to show that they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps."

What they needed was housing. "I was willing to work with the church on this," DeBlasio says. "I mean, they were basically giving us this land. We had people who wanted to charge us square footage you'd charge in New York State." It was DeBlasio who introduced the "exclusive use" language in the agreement between the archdiocese and FEMA. While he says "FEMA can't discriminate," he adds that "we will do an exclusive-use site to the point that they can fill those units with eligible candidates."

By the time the park opened, DeBlasio had returned to New York, taking his view of the contract with him. As FEMA began filling the trailers with outsiders, Nguyen protested. He reminded FEMA of the language in the contract giving his parishioners preference for the trailers. He told FEMA that even as they give trailers to other applicants, parishioners continue to call and visit the parish offices, asking for help with their applications and inquiring about the availability of trailers. Many of the applicants are elderly Vietnamese Americans with limited English skills, making it difficult for them to communicate with FEMA. Some suffer from ailments such as hearing and memory loss that have further hampered their ability to assist in their applications.

When Nguyen offered to loan FEMA one of the church's bilingual employees to help, Reams declined. No FEMA employees in the area speak Vietnamese. "When we tried to contact them, they dismissed us," Nguyen says. Confusion over simple questions about family history and information such as a previous address or date of birth have become impossible hurdles, he says, and applications have foundered.

The case of My Huynh is one example. Huynh, who is 88 years old, is partially deaf and confined to a wheelchair. After the hurricane, her family moved to the West Bank and she was assigned a trailer in Baton Rouge, but she was isolated from her community and missed attending daily mass at Mary Queen of Vietnam so she soon left. Family and friends helped her find a two-room apartment behind the Village de l'Est commercial strip to live in while she waited for a trailer in the park across from the church.

On a hot afternoon in early October, Huynh sat in darkness in her apartment with the curtains drawn over the lone window, which was shut tight. Outside, men leaned against cars, drinking from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. The apartment had no air conditioning and the stove was broken. "I can't breathe in here, but I can't open the window," she said through an interpreter. "People are doing drugs out there."

In mid-November Huynh received a call asking her to come in to the FEMA office regarding her application. When her son took her in, she expected to pick up the keys to a trailer. Instead she was told that her application had been denied because she had left the trailer in Baton Rouge and found an apartment, which FEMA deemed "permanent housing." Huynh slumped in her wheelchair and wept quietly. "My hopes fade away," she said. "I have no hopes now."

Though the details of the trailer park dispute are unique, its general outlines are all too familiar, says Tulane's Seicshnaydre. "These programs were created after Katrina with the best of intentions, but they're difficult to access and they're Byzantine," she says. "The net result is that there are people who have no housing who are supposed to have preference for housing."

At Mary Queen of Vietnam, Nguyen and his staff are not giving up. After Nguyen contacted U.S. Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter earlier this month, FEMA agreed to meet and discuss the situation. At the meeting, which took place on the Friday before Thanksgiving, FEMA representatives acknowledged that they may have skirted the terms of the contract, according to Nguyen. They agreed to hire a bilingual site manager for the park and look into the possibility of reimbursing Mary Queen of Vietnam for the $80,000 in liability insurance. They also agreed to work with the church to come up with a plan to phase out the trailer park in the next two years so the church can begin construction of a long-planned senior housing development on the site.

What they did not do, Nguyen says, is promise to find homes for the families and senior citizens from his parish whose applications have stalled. "I want to see who among my people have been rejected and the reason for it," Nguyen says. "In the past when they rejected my people, that was the end of that. I want to have another look." Tony Le, a volunteer with the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies, is methodically contacting the original list of 300 parishioners who requested trailers to find out who is still waiting. Based on the response so far, he estimates that about 70 households hope to move into a trailer across the street from the church. In addition to that list, Nguyen says he has received calls from parishioners who temporarily relocated outside the area but would like to move into the park until they can repair their homes.

Inside the park, with its dramatic pagoda-style entranceway, those who have been granted trailers are looking forward to a Thanksgiving of relative comfort. Ty Dinh, who gives her age as "near 80" was granted a trailer in early October. She spends her time tending a modest vegetable garden in the sliver of rocky soil surrounding her trailer and attends daily mass at Mary Queen of Vietnam. Still, she worries about her friend My Huynh, who is still trying to get a trailer. "Why do I deserve a trailer and she does not?" she asks. "I wish someone would help her."

Author's footnote: Three days after the story appeared in the Gambit Weekly, FEMA reversed its decision rejecting the application of My Huynh, the 88-year-old woman featured in the piece. She now has a wheelchair-accessible trailer in the park at Mary Queen of Vietnam.

Originally published on November 28, 2006 in the Gambit Weekly. Copyright © 2006 by Gambit Weekly. All rights reserved.


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