A victim of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation struggles to find a home in Chico as aid runs out

Living like a refugee Former New Orleans resident Lawrence Truax stands in front of the hotel room he has called home since arriving in Chico in November.

Living like a refugee Former New Orleans resident Lawrence Truax stands in front of the hotel room he has called home since arriving in Chico in November.

Photo By Alexis Harmon

Precisely six months ago, 54-year-old Lawrence Truax hotwired a neighbor’s car to escape the wrath of Hurricane Katrina’s. He left his home in New Orleans at 6 p.m. the night before the storm hit and drove toward Nashville. On the road with thousands of fleeing residents, the usually 60-minute drive took him 10 hours.

Truax met his daughter and son-in-law on what he calls “rough” property in Kentucky, where they waited eight weeks for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Finally approved, he traveled to Chico on Nov. 17, 2005, with a FEMA transportation voucher, to be near his two sons and back in a familiar town.

Truax has lived out of a motel room at the downtown Heritage Inn Express since that day.

Now his time is running out. He and 21 other Hurricane Katrina victims in Chico face the approaching expiration of their FEMA housing voucher checks. Some evacuees have already made a successful transition to permanent housing, but others, like Truax, have struggled to secure a new residence.

Truax has a voucher from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to cover the rent of an apartment for six months. But most property managers and landlords quickly turn Truax away because of his bad credit history.

In December 2005, Truax thought he had a way around his credit report. He met Mayor Scott Gruendl in the Heritage Inn Express lobby just before Christmas and, upon hearing Truax’s story, the mayor assured him that Chico would aid struggling Katrina victims.

“He shook my hand and said, ‘Don’t worry, if you have any trouble with your credit,’ that the city of Chico will co-sign for you,” Truax said.

Truax took the mayor’s words literally. So, when he finally had an apartment set up and contacted the city about the Gruendl’s offer, he felt they reneged.

“I lost the apartment and I haven’t been able to get anyone to help me out in any way,” Truax said. “When it finally came down to it, the City Council wouldn’t co-sign for any Katrina victims to get an apartment.”

Gruendl remembers offering to help Truax with housing, and said the City Council did later vote to not co-sign for Katrina victims. Gruendl said he redirected Truax to the Community Housing Improvement Program that could help him with credit and act as his co-signer.

“The city is very involved in providing housing to Katrina guests if they are unable to find housing on their own or through Section 8,” Gruendl said, noting he and the city have also worked together with Katrina victims to secure housing through the Tenant Based Rental Assistance program.

Somehow, Truax still had a hard time coming up with a place to live.

“Chico is very difficult,” Truax grumbled last week, sitting in the bright sun outside the Naked Lounge. “I’ve already bought my bicycle trailer, my lightweight travel gear. Chico’s not letting me in the door.”

Last week, Truax faced homelessness as of March 1 if no landlord accepted his voucher. However, FEMA notified Truax on Monday, saying he qualified for a 15-day extension on his motel stay, but it remains only a temporary reprieve.

Uncertain of his future, Truax prepared for the worst: being homeless and transient—or “on vacation,” as he referred to it—even with a housing voucher worth more than $3,500 in his pocket.

Truax searched the classifieds everyday, circling available apartments and studios, and calling local property owners—and he kept looking, despite some 20 rejections. He obtained a list of subsidy-sympathetic landlords and managers from the local HUD office, but his first real hope, Francis Properties, came by way of recommendation, just in time.

Francis Properties, a small property management office run out of an old house on Mangrove Avenue, wasn’t on the HUD list, but Truax decided to give it a try anyway. Through Tuesday morning’s constant rain, he caught a bus to the office, carrying important documents in his black briefcase.

Truax didn’t expect the inquiry to last long. They usually didn’t, he said, once they find out about his credit. Leaving his dripping poncho outside, he walked into the office and explained his situation.

“Do you have a job? After six months how are you going to pay your rent?” property manager Abdu Alawi asked Truax from his desk across the room.

Truax explained he was currently on disability and that he had worked as a carpenter in New Orleans before Katrina. He didn’t tell him that he went back to school in the late ‘90s to pursue a degree in music and now wanted to get back to playing the guitar.

And when Truax brought up the subject of his bad credit, Alawi encouragingly replied, “That I can work with.”

Alawi offered to take him to see an available apartment on Stuart Avenue going for $615 a month, just at the top of Truax’s range. Alawi chauffeured Truax to the property, a spacious-but-dated one-bedroom apartment with a washing machine and dryer included. A high chain link fence closed off a minuscule front yard from the sketchy neighborhood.

“Yeah, it’s acceptable for me,” Truax said after a quick walk-through, but a credit check and paperwork remained to be done.

After Alawi printed the report, and Truax filled out the rental application, each completed sections of a Request for Tenancy Approval form from HUD and signed in blue ink. Next, Truax needed to deliver the forms to the HUD office so the agency could inspect and approve the property.

If everything complies, Truax can finally move out of the hotel and into a real home in less than a week. While people in New Orleans clean up after Mardi Gras, Lawrence Truax will begin to unpack.

“It’s going in the right direction right now,” Truax said with measured optimism, as he stepped out of the office into what was now a damp, sunny day to wait for the bus.