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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Neighbors for life

Between the Houston Chronicle and the Times-Picayune, there was an abundance of articles the last few days about the New Orleans evacuees in Houston… and I don’t know about you, but Polimom thinks a total change of focus is required. New Orleans isn’t coming back “on-line” in the near future, and many of the people who think they’re here temporarily are probably going to be Houstonians for many years.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem. The city of Houston could not be more different from its Louisiana neighbor, and Polimom is worried that without some enormous effort, many of our new residents aren’t going to make the transition.

If you’re thinking this isn’t your problem, Houston, you’re out of your freakin’ minds.

For instance:

"The combination of everything the kids have gone through — all the complexities in moving to the city, the standards being so much higher (in Texas), them being so far behind and them missing so much school — yes, I think there is going to be a huge dropout situation," warned Gary Robichaux, principal of New Orleans West, or NOW, College Preparatory School, which opened in Houston several weeks after Katrina. "And especially the kids that stay in Houston. This might end up being an issue for Houston."

This isn’t a short-term situation; the people who lost everything in New Orleans are here for the long haul – and how well they integrate into Houston’s city culture (or not) is going to have enormous impact.

Early on, much was made of the term “refugee”. It understandably offended people who had to flee their homes along the Gulf Coast, because it implied a “foreign-ness” – a sense of not belonging to America. Unfortunately, pressing that distinction subjugated an important fact: culturally speaking, New Orleans was totally, profoundly unique.

Houston has to reach out further to the folks from NOLA who are (probably) permanently transplanted for precisely that reason. The way of life in New Orleans wasn't superficial; it was bone-deep. Wiithout a major shift in how cities and communities perceive their new neighbors, the transition may fail.

Sunday's Times-Picayune ran an article and a series of vignettes describing the impact Houston is having on New Orleanians here, some of which were hopeful, and some that were not.

Do you know what this Houston Police officer is seeing, when he describes the New Orleans attitude?

"I've met three nice people from New Orleans," King said, "out of hundreds."

He said the difference between the hometown folks and the evacuees is in their demeanor.

"Their attitude is not something we're used to encountering," King said. "Most of them are -- I'm trying to think of a good word -- wiseasses. Yep, wiseasses."

Is he describing everybody? NO. However, Polimom doesn't think he's fantasizing, either. I've encountered that attitude myself - many times. He’s talking about something the New Orleans Police Department understands well: an incredible disconnect between law enforcement and/or authorities and the population they are sworn to serve. The NOPD knows this attitude intimately; it’s a large part of how they’ve ended up with their reputation.

Do we want to see the HPD go the same way? Hell no! But they will, if we don’t find a way to shift perceptions and help the evacuees integrate.

And what future do you see for these seven kids (story linked above)?

Fondren Middle School is 27 blocks from her apartment — too far, she says, to send the children walking in an unfamiliar city. Powell, who dropped out of school in the 11th grade, knows the children have to return to school, especially her oldest daughter, Brittany. "She's a bright girl."

They tell her they want to go back.

"I want for them to finish school and educate themselves as much as they can so they'll be able to handle their things," Powell said of her own children, Brittany, 13; Brione, 11; and Brishawn, 7; her nieces, Jhoqueal, 16, who is three months pregnant; Bionne, 14; Deiondrea, 12; and nephew Myron, 2.

Those kids have already been out of school for FIVE MONTHS! They came from a school system that failed its children so miserably, they are way behind their peers. Do you suppose they are going to be able to provide for themselves, or get good jobs, or even finish school?

Guess what? These kids – and 20,000 more – are likely to be part of the fabric of Houston’s tomorrow.

Houston is not New Orleans – and that's both good and bad.

The good? We have excellent schools in the area, tremendous employment opportunities, affordable housing, and genuinely warm people.

On the bad side, we are not a walking city, and we are transitory. People here move around. A lot.

For a population without cars, education, job skills, and family networks, Houston must seem more than alien. It must feel hostile – and that unintended hostility is going to set this city up for failure unless we get in front of this now.

Last September, Houstonians absolutely redefined the terms generosity and neighborliness. They opened their hearts, wallets, and city right up to those in need, but at the time, nobody knew that this was a permanent situation. Everybody was thinking in terms of weeks, or a few months.

The evacuees are not going home tomorrow. They may not be leaving Houston this year – or next. In fact, many of the folks from New Orleans – perhaps most – are here to stay, and that alone is setting up further unintended problems. Because they don’t want to be here. They want to be back in New Orleans…. and they can’t.

What on earth are we going to do?