HOUSTON—Seventy-nine-year-old Willie Toliver can't wait to get home.
After an uneasy year holed up in a Houston seniors apartment complex, he's counting the days until he goes back to New Orleans. It doesn't matter that portions of his old neighborhood are in tatters and many of his friends have moved on.
There's a burial plot waiting for him.
"All I have to do is die," Toliver said.
A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, he's but one of the estimated 100,000 evacuees whose lives remain in limbo as they debate whether to put down roots in Texas or return to Louisiana.
For many, the decision will be forced on them. Some want to return but can't, because they have no homes or jobs. Others prefer to stay in Houston but their life savings are tied up in flood-damaged houses.
In New Orleans, their old neighborhoods might have been poor but their family connections went back for generations.
Many evacuees, like Toliver, describe sprawling Houston as a different world from the compact Crescent City. Back home, they could walk a few blocks to a neighborhood store or hop on buses that would take them all over the city.
"At home, I could walk anywhere I would want to go. Here, I don't go anywhere," said the pajama-clad Toliver, whose voice alternated between a quiet rasp and a theatrical roar.
The neighborhoods where their families lived for generations are destroyed.
The retired bus driver is surrounded by evacuees at the Primrose Casa Bella seniors apartment complex.
Gerald Broderson, a retired chef at the Royal Orleans and Superdome, plans to return to his mobile home in New Orleans to salvage what he can. Yet Broderson, 74, knows he may be too poor to escape New Orleans once he goes back, leaving him stuck in a place full of memories he desperately wants to forget.
"The year before Katrina I lost my brother, my mother, my wife of 50 years ..." Broderson said. "... It gets to me."
Leroy Fair Jr., another Casa Bella tenant, is already calling himself a Texan, on the other hand.
After spending three desperate days in his Ninth Ward attic, Fair isn't looking back. The former merchant mariner has a new girlfriend and sees no reason to return to the neighborhood that his ancestors helped settle.
"New Orleans looks like an atomic bomb went off," Fair said. "Why go back to that?"
Houston officials think many evacuees will come to the same conclusion.
A Zogby poll for the city of Houston in July found that a majority of the evacuees were African-American women who earned less than $15,000 a year and planned to stay.
The concern is that many of the evacuees won't have the means to pay for housing once the Federal Emergency Management Agency's emergency assistance expires at the end of next February. Houston may have to deal with thousands of evicted evacuees if more funding for housing isn't found in the next six months.
Earlier this month, Mayor Bill White warned evacuees that they need to become self-sufficient and decide whether their future is in Houston, New Orleans or someplace else.
"We all know that it will not be forever," White said at a news conference. "It's not an entitlement. Those who are able-bodied are expected to work. Those people who do have plans to return home need to take personal responsibility for making sure they know what's happening back home and knowing what the opportunities are in other localities."
But a dozen nonprofits that staged a hurricane housing conference earlier this month in Houston said Texas needed nearly $1 billion in federal assistance—$97.5 million for low-income tax credits and $822 million in community block-development grants—for 100,000 evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Nonprofit groups also are urging that the temporary housing program be shifted from FEMA to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said John Henneberger, co-director of Texas Low-Income Housing Information, a nonprofit group that helped host the hurricane-housing seminar.
"I can't believe the whole country is ready to abandon 36,000 to 40,000 families in Houston, the poorest of the poor," Henneberger said. "There will be homeless. There will be a crisis unless something is done."
The Casa Bella complex, whose tenants are 55 and older, was new when it opened its doors last September to 142 evacuees. It's everything New Orleans isn't: quiet, clean and orderly.
Seven evacuees have died since they came and 118 are still living at the complex, Casa Bella manager Carol Tobola said.
Tobola said only 15 percent of the evacuees would qualify financially to pay Casa Bella's fee of $531 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. She points to one evacuee who paid $325 a month for room and board in a New Orleans boardinghouse.
"I don't know of any place in Houston where he could live for $325 or $350 a month," Tobola said. "Those places don't exist in Houston or most places in the United States."
The transition for the complex hasn't been easy. There were problems with some evacuees drinking in public at the alcohol-free complex. There were drugs and prostitution, which didn't completely go away until off-duty police officers were hired to patrol, Tobola said.
All over Houston, the impact of the evacuees on the crime rate remains a hot topic. Overall crime hasn't climbed significantly but homicides have jumped dramatically.
From Jan. 1 to Aug 14, 56 of Houston's 252 homicides—more than 1 in 5—involved either a suspect or victim from New Orleans.
"If they were warring in New Orleans suddenly they were warring in Houston," Houston police spokesman Alvin Wright said. "The only difference was now you were getting killed in Houston."
The police have saturated the hard-hit Fondren district in southwest Houston with overtime officers to patrol the dozens of apartments filled with evacuees. They also said they'd learned that criminals often were committing crimes in Houston then fleeing back to New Orleans.
Like everyone else, police worry what will happen if evacuees are evicted eventually.
"There was one guy from New Orleans who warned us it could get pretty ugly when their housing assistance runs out," Houston patrol Officer C.B. Nickerson said. "He told us all hell is going to break loose."
Michelle Dolliole, 37, is one of the evacuees in those southwest Houston apartments.
Her daughter, Ashley, 17, is on a waiting list for a kidney transplant after her body rejected two others.
"I worry that I'm going to be homeless with a daughter who needs a kidney," Michelle Dolliole said. "I don't know what to do."
Yet she's committed to staying in Houston.
"I miss New Orleans, but when I get there I don't feel like I belong there, which is crazy because I love New Orleans," she said. "It doesn't feel like home anymore. I feel like we belong in Houston."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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