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Some FEMA trailer dwellers face moving day with no place to go

Jenny Jarvie Los Angeles Times

BAKER, La. – Curtis Westbrook cut a lonely figure as he sat outside his trailer this week, chain smoking as workmen hauled another empty trailer away.

He had already loaded all his belongings – a television and some dishes and clothes – into his white Jeep Cherokee. But he was not sure how far the old Jeep would make it. With the motor mounts broken, he had rigged the engine on wooden sticks.

In any case, he was not sure where to go. He had barely a day to meet the deadline to vacate the Renaissance Village trailer park, and he didn’t know whether he could pay $400 a month for an apartment in nearby Baton Rouge. So he just sat there, waiting.

Westbrook, 53, is one of hundreds of residents across the Gulf Coast struggling to leave trailer parks by today. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, pressed by reports of potentially hazardous formaldehyde levels in trailers, is rushing to close its last six emergency trailer parks by the first day of hurricane season.

FEMA says no one will be kicked out of their trailer parks if they haven’t found a place to stay. With 27 of the 575 units at Renaissance Village in Baker still occupied Saturday, an agency spokesman acknowledged it might take a few more days to empty the park.

Yet critics accuse the agency of pressing residents to leave before they have found permanent housing. With affordable apartments in short supply, some are relocating to motels; they can stay there for up to 30 days while they hunt for a new residence. Even those who have found rental apartments and houses do not necessarily have a plan for paying the rent when the government’s emergency subsidies run out.

“I’m under more stress now than in the hurricane,” said Ghulam Nasim, 79, a retired general practitioner who had wrapped his clothes up in sheets but remained in his trailer poring over a stack of letters he’d written to FEMA’s director requesting an extension.

These government trailer parks were emergency shelters, but they also served as mass halfway homes where thousands of low-income residents, mostly from New Orleans, could adjust to the soaring rents and fractured social networks of post-Katrina life.

Renaissance Village was once the biggest emergency trailer park in the United States, but more than 500 households have relocated to apartments, homes and hotels. Most of those who remain in these trailers just north of Baton Rouge are poor, elderly or disabled. Some struggle with depression or are resistant to change, others are convicted felons or have drug and alcohol addictions.

“He will just sit there for the rest of his life if no one intervenes,” Sister Judith Brun, a Roman Catholic nun coordinating assistance, said Thursday of one resident on her list of tenants who had yet to secure homes. “And this woman,” she said, pointing to another name, “she’s about to have a nervous breakdown.”

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