NEW HAVEN — Calling the Elm City a community ready and willing to sacrifice, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has opened the doors of the city to 100 families, or about 400 people, victims of Hurricane Katrina, the first of which could arrive here by Wednesday.
"This is about us," DeStefano said. "This isn’t about the families; this is about our community’s character, our community’s willingness to sacrifice. This is an opportunity to treat others as we would like ours to be treated."
DeStefano, flanked by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, city aldermen, housing officials and the heads of various nonprofit agencies, announced a plan to shelter 100 families left homeless by the hurricane "for as long as it takes" Monday evening at City Hall. The first of four waves of 25 families could reach the city by Wednesday, followed by 25 more each week thereafter.
All refugees sent to the city would be housed at the Citywide Field House on Sherman Parkway for the first few days while they receive basic medical and psychological treatment and get acclimated to city officials who will guide them through the relocation process, DeStefano said.
Most of the families will be placed in existing public housing units scattered throughout the city, but efforts will be made to contact private landlords who want to help, he said.
DeStefano acknowledged that the move could result in some discontent, as approximately 1,800 New Haven families are currently on waiting lists to be placed in public apartments that will now go to refugees.
The mayor also vowed to "find the space and the staff" to accommodate children in the city’s schools.
"I think the measure of a just society is how well it treats those most in need," DeStefano said. "This is a part of sacrifice in New Haven."
DeStefano said that a rough estimate of the cost would be $80,000 per family for a year, although the city expects to offset that through public donations as well as reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Based on that rough estimate, the total cost of housing 100 families in New Haven for one year would be $8 million, although officials said that there is little chance the city would be left to bear that cost alone.
"We think most of that money will come back," DeStefano said, who cautioned that the number is just an estimate. "We don’t think it will cost anywhere near that, but it will cost something."
New Haven Fire Chief Michael Grant said there will likely be some cost to his department in terms of overtime once the process begins, but he said that the addition of 100 families to the city should not affect safety operations.
FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney told the Associated Press that the federal agency is involved in a "mass sheltering operation" with officials in Atlanta, Boston, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Washington and other cities to help house the 250,000 to 300,000 residents of the Gulf Coast left homeless by Katrina.
Relocating and providing for an influx of families is sure to prove a daunting task in New Haven, especially since many will be arriving without any identification and "with nothing but the clothes on their backs," DeStefano said.
And while the city has available 19 of the 25 apartments it will need to house the first group ready to go, the Housing Authority of New Haven will have to scramble to outfit and repair other apartments in time for the next group, housing authority Interim Executive Director Regina Winters said.
"The next round, we’re going to have to work really hard," she said. "We’re going to do what we can to get appliances in there, but for the most part we’re going to be relying on donations."
The Community Foundation of New Haven has been appointed fiduciary agent for donations that should help offset the cost to the city for housing. The mayor said he is also contacting retailers and other businesses to provide furniture, clothing and other goods that will be needed once families arrive.
DeStefano said that most of the newcomers are likely to be single mothers with children. Several area employers have expressed an interest in providing job training and employment for families once they arrive, although the mayor declined to name specific companies when asked Monday.
He stressed that the families, once they arrive, will be spread throughout the city rather than concentrated in one neighborhood.
"Our intent is not to create a village or a camp; our intention is to integrate them into a community that cares about each other," DeStefano said. "We’re going to do this right."
FEMA will be in charge of transporting families to New Haven and is now trying to determine which of the thousands of homeless would prefer relocating in the city, DeStefano said. Winters said that they are looking for those who have family or friends in the tri-state area.
While there remains many unanswered questions as to just how much aid will be provided by the federal government to reimburse cities like New Haven, DeLauro said that waiting would be unacceptable.
"What leadership is all about is that you don’t have all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed when you’re in a crisis," she said. "You’ve got to take action."
©New Haven Register 2005