Sunday, December 30, 2007

Promise of help has strings attached

She thought she did everything right. But long Road Home wait tests N.O. woman's patience

The call came Dec. 6, almost a year to the day after 69-year-old Catherine Clark had her Road Home eligibility interview, after 15 months of countless delays and unanswered questions.

A staffer from the state's homeowner recovery program was calling to tell Clark she couldn't collect the $95,287 buyout she'd been promised for her leveled Lower 9th Ward home until she cleared up three liens.

She knew something was wrong. After more than four decades working for the state and city as a nurse, she had great credit, had paid off her mortgage and had only taken on an $88,000 Small Business Administration loan in June because the Road Home process dragged.

As Clark recalled the conversation, "Who's Richard Clark?" the Road Home employee asked her.

Clark was taken aback to hear the name of her late son, who died of AIDS in 1996. The year after his death, the IRS and the state had issued liens for six years of unpaid income taxes, and his last official address was his mother's house, but Clark had cleared that up long ago. The lien couldn't possibly attach to her house, because her son never owned it.

"And who's Paul Clark?" the adviser went on, abruptly.

That name shocked Clark even more. It was her late husband, dead about 25 years, seven years before she even bought the house.

"What do they have to do with ... Hello? Hello?" she asked.

She heard a click and realized the agent had put the phone down and left. She felt like a fool, talking to nobody as Road Home employees chattered indecipherably in the background.

Ten minutes later, the unidentified woman came back on the line to say she had talked with a supervisor. Clark, flustered, immediately asked her for her name, at which point the employee hung up on her, she said.

The conversation proved a watershed for Clark, one of those moments to which so many of the 185,000 homeowner applicants to the state's hurricane compensation program can relate. It marked a low point in a constant struggle since the flood, and also the moment she realized she might just have to make it on her own and write off the endless promises that the government would make her whole.

A Road Home spokeswoman declined comment about Clark's case, citing privacy concerns.

Initially, Clark wanted to reach through the phone line and strangle the Road Home agent. Then, she wanted to go out in the middle of the street and let a car run her over, to end it all -- the stress, the cramped FEMA trailer, the high blood pressure, the diabetes, the asthma.

After living in Texas for a year after the flood, she had answered the call of politicians to come home, rebuild, on the promise of government help.

Never in her 69 years had Clark expected government handouts. But she didn't consider this a handout. She considered it just compensation for property destroyed by the collapse of shoddily built federal levees. And for the first time in her life, she desperately needed the help: Retired and on a fixed income, she couldn't build a new home without it, and she couldn't get on with her life without a home.

For more than a year, she had bought into the program's reassurances -- the money would come soon, any day now -- but now she started to doubt it might ever come.

Like many of the estimated 75,000 eligible applicants still awaiting federal rebuilding aid more than 27 months after the flood, Clark became consumed with gnawing uncertainty, trapped in rebuilding purgatory.

With her former neighbors and friends from the Lower 9th Ward scattered, Clark has few friends her age and has come to rely more heavily than she'd like on family and members of her church. She has started seeing a psychiatrist, something foreign and humbling for a tough-minded senior citizen, a Charity Hospital nurse for 28 years and a widow who raised nine children.

She felt the foundation of her life -- self-sufficiency -- crumbling beneath her.

"I've always been a strong person and always taught my kids to be strong and self-sufficient, and now I've let them down, because I'm weak," Clark recalled telling her daughter-in-law, Elvernia Clark, after the Dec. 6 phone call from the Road Home.

"You're still strong," she said Elvernia Clark reassured her. "It's just that you're elderly, and even for the young, this is a devastating process to go though. We just have to stick together and get through it together."

Family offers support

Before Katrina laid waste to her neighborhood, Clark evacuated to Houston with her three daughters and their families. They stayed in a hotel for two weeks before a church group in Temple, Texas, near Waco, offered to help pay for an apartment for Clark. Her son Jeffrey Clark, a New Orleans firefighter and first-responder during Katrina, had stayed in New Orleans through the storm and, first chance she got, she came back to visit him and see the home she had purchased in 1987, where she started a new life after her husband's death.

It looked like kindling on a campfire: walls collapsed, wooden boards askew, foundation cracked. She wiped away tears, then struck a Vanna White pose for a photo that belied her despair.

She went back to Temple and her donated apartment, but after a year, she missed New Orleans and her independence terribly. She had enough flood- and homeowner-insurance proceeds to pay off the mortgage on her destroyed 9th Ward home, with enough left over to put into the purchase of a new home. She decided to come home and make a go of it.

She figured the Road Home benefit would get her over the hump by allowing her to pay fully for a gutted house in eastern New Orleans, across from one of her sons, and providing enough cash to renovate it into one last home. She applied Sept. 20, 2006.

Her children told her to come back around Thanksgiving 2006. Her son, Rodney Clark, would move back into his house in eastern New Orleans before it was done, so his mother could live in the FEMA trailer in his front yard until she could secure her Road Home grant.

Jeffrey Clark went with his mother to her initial Road Home eligibility interview Dec. 8, 2006. It would prove a harbinger. Clark, recalling the interview, said she felt the adviser was talking down to her and began to cry.

"Don't ask her any questions," Jeffrey Clark jumped in. "I'm here. Ask me. You're upsetting her. This is already painful for her, so just deal with me."

He turned to his mother and projected the strength she'd always exuded raising him and his siblings.

"The choice is yours," he said. "If you want to go through the process, fine, but just realize this is the government. The people aren't going to be nice to you. They don't understand."

Jeffrey Clark and his wife, Elvernia, had already made up their minds. They lost their home and several rental properties in the storm, but they weren't going to fool with the Road Home.

"If I'm going to fight it, I'll fight it for her, because she needs it more than we do," Elvernia Clark said.

And so Elvernia Clark became her mother-in-law's Road Home advocate, fighting numerous battles ever since, so far to no avail.

Roadblocks abound

In the heady early months of the Road Home, everyone's expectations were more than a little off. The head program administrator promised 500 grants a day by January 2007, then backed off. The governor, fed up with early delays, ordered 10,000 award commitments in November 2006, but the letters that went out were filled with errors and it would take more than six months to actually pay that many grants.

After Clark went through her Road Home eligibility appointment in December 2006, she thought she'd see the money soon, so she bought a gutted house near Jeffrey and Elvernia's home for $70,000. She only had $50,000 left from her retirement savings and insurance payments, but her sons kicked in another $20,000 so she wouldn't have to get another mortgage.

But then the months started dragging on. Calls to Road Home went unreturned. Finally, in April, came the coveted yellow grant award letter, but it brought only another disappointment. It undervalued her 9th Ward house by $20,000 and offered her $77,000.

Elvernia Clark went to work. She called the state Office of Community Development, which oversees the program, and the agency assigned a caseworker. On April 16, the Road Home's Elizabeth Hill clarified in an e-mail that, indeed, the award should be $95,287. With Elvernia working the phones, Clark's prospects seemed to brighten.

In June, the Road Home informed the Clarks that the program had begun a title search, something they thought would take a couple of months at most. But five months later, still no news.

Last summer, desperate to move on, Clark relented and took out a mortgage in the form of an SBA loan, so she could begin working on her new home. While Jeffrey worked on his house, he started the work on his mother's, shelling out $17,000 for a roof and electrical wiring.

No resolution in sight

In November, Clark mustered the energy to drop in on a Road Home closing office in Clearview Mall in Metairie, hoping she could demand some answers.

"I didn't even get in the door," Clark said. "There was a table in front, with some employees and a security guard and they just said, 'This is for appointments only.

That was followed by the Dec. 6 phone call that brought back painful memories of a lost child and drove Clark to the depths. Her daughter-in-law, who describes herself as "a very aggressive person," started hassling the title company, HGI Catastrophe Services, repeatedly dialing random extensions at its LaPlace headquarters until she got a warm body on the other end of the line, then faxing documents showing the liens should have no bearing on her grant.

Now that Jeffrey and Elvernia Clark are back in their home, he wants to start on his mother's 2,300-square-foot house: installing drywall, plumbing, windows, flooring, an alarm system, garage doors, doing the landscaping and painting. Estimated cost: $38,000. Then they can find some furnishings.

But that should exhaust the SBA loan. Even if she gets the $95,287 from Road Home, most of it will have to go directly to paying off the loan, according to state and federal rules. If she is lucky, the remainder could be just enough to pay back her sons for their help purchasing the new home, but then she'd have nothing left.

That is if she ever gets the Road Home money. If not, she'll have less than nothing left -- and a large debt.

After venting her anger, and working through her angst on a psychiatrist's couch, Clark has started the process of finding peace with her new life, whether the government comes through or not. She has immersed herself in a new spiritual community at the New Israel Baptist Church in eastern New Orleans.

She attends worship services, Bible study and takes a leading role in its Life Builders missionary program.

There, she has found support and more people, like her family, who have encouraged her not to become overly dependent on the government coming through.

"It seems like every time I take one step forward, the government sends me 10 steps backward," Clark said recently to the pastor, the Rev. Douglas Haywood.

Haywood worried that she might be suicidal, but the preacher also saw a lot of pride and positivity in Clark. He thinks it helped her to see the church develop and grow, even though it started operating again in 2006 with no seats, no lights, no heating or air conditioning and plenty of ugly structural damage.

Haywood bucked the naysayers and started an unfinished church as an inspirational message to its downtrodden members: "If we can do this at church, you can do it at home, too."