Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Beware the FEMA Trailer Guy

My sister received an unsolicited offer of assistance from FEMA yesterday. Or so she thought. Like everyone else in the city or the diaspora, she is highly suspicious of anything the government promises. So when, out of the blue, a smooth talking gentleman called her unsolicited to offer her a trailer, she was suspicious.

Unlike most survivors, my sister has run telemarketing boiler rooms before, had learned the finer points of pitch and patter from masters. She caught something in the conversation that most people would have missed.

First the caller asked solicitously how she was doing. Was she OK? Did she have a place to live? How were her other family members? (She is the registered FEMA recipient for the household of her and my mother. FEMA grants assistance to households, not individuals. My sister, like many people in , stays by her moma's).

When he extended the offer of a trailer, she said, no, her previous residence was on the seventh floor of a large apartment complex. She did not think the management would be receptive to her dropping a trailer into the parking lot. Thank you, she said, but no.

So, you're not in your apartment, Mr. Smooth asked. No, she said. I have another place to stay.

So, he asked, you're staying with friends or family?

This was the point at which her natural suspicion of phone solicitors, and FEMA's well earned reputation, came into play.

No, she said. I am not. I am subletting.

This was an important answer. Like most Katrina survivors, she had applied for the immediate assistance grant. Like most, she was not clearly instructed that it would only be able to be used for housing assistance, and must be spent entirely on rent. But she had heard, subsequently, that FEMA was already hounding some people who had spent the money otherwise, trying to get their $2,000 back.

When she called me to relate this story, she was understandably angry. Some days, people back home I talk to are angry, some days they are depressed or in tears, other days overjoyed that some familiar place or person has reappeared on the scene. They are an an emotional roller coaster that someone like myself, gone 20 years and 1,200 miles from New Orleans, can only try to understand.

The anger of this telephone call was not of that sort. It was timely and appropriate. Having been a telemarketer, she knew that most of the distraught population of New Orleans and the diaspora would fall into Mr. Smooth's sympathy patter. They would not catch the real reason for his call.

There are no trailers, unless you're in one of the last of the shelters and about to be deported to Baker, La. The real reason for the call was to audit how she was spending the immediate assistance grant. The monumental dishonesty and callousness of Mr. Smooth, and whoever had organized his calling campaign, had my sister on the edge of rage.

As it should.

So, if you get a call from Mr. Smooth, be careful what you say. If you let on that you had to spend some of that immediate housing assistance on, say, food, or a second pair of underwear, be prepared for federal marshals to appear at your home sometime soon and demand--if not the entire amount in cash, then at least that you turn over that ill-gotten pair of shorts.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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