September 17, 2008

For the poor, hard times get harder

Chase Davis and Leslie Casimir - Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — They pulled together Tuesday and used kitchen knives and brute strength to rip out sopping carpet and the padding beneath it.

Their belongings, a pile of wet clothing and children's toys, mingled in a stinky mound outside their apartment.

The Suarez family members weren't in Galveston or anywhere near the Gulf Coast. They live in North Houston, home to many gritty neighborhoods that know suffering.

Now, days after Hurricane Ike tore off roofs and overturned lives, tough times have gotten tougher.

The Suarezes, like many families, are taking matters into their own hands.

“If there is no more water, we'll be OK,” Maria Suarez, 40, said reassuringly as she took a break from the work.

In her complex alone, the roofs of 15 apartments caved in, destroying those units and the ones below.

Across Houston, unauthorized immigrants like the Suarezes, who already live on the fringes of society, are afraid to ask for help for fear of being arrested.

At the same time, citizens who've lived here all their lives are desperate for help and can't figure out who to call or grow weary waiting on busy help lines.

Mayor Bill White said the City Council today will consider establishing a roof-repair program for people who lack insurance and whose homes were severely damaged.

He issued something akin to an ultimatum to landlords: fix the roof or stop collecting rent.

“The first issue we're going to deal with is people who have holes in their roof from the hurricane,” he said. “If you have a hole in your roof, you're not up to code.”

The city has been in touch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has a program to place temporary covering over holes in rooftops.

For some, the help can't come soon enough.

Warehouse worker Mario Calderon said he and his family, including three children, moved to his now destroyed East End apartment from Katy earlier this year.

The inside of his place was wet and musty in the late morning warmth. Debris carpeted his apartment after crashing through the now-skeletal ceiling.

Calderon and his wife want to apply for financial aid, but they've been greeted by constant busy signals and long waits on hold.

“They tell us to apply on the Internet, but how are we supposed to get on the Internet?” he asked. “They tell us to call, and we call and call, and they say it's too busy.”

“I understand that a lot of people had debris fly around and some people lost a roof,” he added, “but I lost everything. If there's somebody that needs help, we need help ASAP.”

In an open courtyard in front of his apartment sat a molding pile of his family's ruined possessions: mattresses and blankets, the splintered black hull of a DVD player, shoes and clothes from his three young children mixed with chunks of drywall and pink insulation.

“I tell (my children) the bogeyman came and tore everything down,” Calderon said. “What else can I say?”

The Third World arrived in the Fifth Ward, where Hurricane Ike toppled trees, shattered windows and caved in roofs of old row houses and bungalows.

At Wipprecht and Farmer streets, retiree Anopawuia Spinks sawed branches from downed trees for firewood.

“I'm using tree branches to cook up some sausages,” said Spinks, 60. “I don't think they are spoiled.”

On block after block, rooftops were patched with plastic sheets.

Tiffany Jackson, 24, who's unemployed and married to a man who's disabled, was mopping bleach water on the hardwood floor, the sky beaming down into her 2-year-old son's bedroom.

“I lost everything in my son's room,” Jackson said.

Soaked mattresses and a sofa were piled outside to dry. So was a television, but as it dried out in the daylight sun, someone stole it.

Houston Chronicle Staff Writers Matt Stiles and Bradley Olson contributed to this report.

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