- BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY
After Hurricane Harvey, Injustice in Houston
Hurricane Harvey dissipated in September, but much of the destruction that it wreaked on Texas and Louisiana remains. When addressing residential concerns, disaster relief officials prioritize the newly homeless over the chronically homeless, choosing to protect the previously privileged over the unprivileged. These benefits range from housing assistance to medical aid, impacting every part of these people’s lives.
As a native Houstonian, I have watched homeless people weather storm after storm. I must ask, is it fair to ignore the most marginalized people in a major crisis? Before Harvey struck Texas, police officers and outreach teams encouraged homeless people to go to shelters, but many stayed on the streets and under freeways. Considering that Mayor Sylvester Turner used legal means to discourage long-term camping and promote safe housing, there were options that he could have taken to ensure the safety of his constituents. City officials could have evacuated homeless encampments because of the serious health hazard posed by Hurricane Harvey, but they chose not to.
Other cities and states have treated their homeless populations worse. In Florida, homeless people said they were segregated and shamed in several Hurricane Irma evacuation centers. At some shelters, homeless people were turned away or denied food. The cost to the physical and mental health of homeless people is tremendous. A year after Hurricane Katrina, nearly half of the children in a study of 329 families showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study discovered that mental and physical illnesses, including PTSD, were common among Katrina survivors who at least had homes during the flood. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable because they suffer from higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse than the general population.
Houston’s homeless community continues to struggle for survival. Part of the problem is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency prioritizes housing and other aid for newly homeless storm victims. A FEMA spokeswoman told Reuters, “If an individual was homeless pre-disaster, they may not be considered for Housing Assistance and Other Needs Assistance, which both require successful verification of pre-disaster occupancy.” Other Needs Assistance covers everything from medical and dental costs to cleaning items. Without medical assistance, homeless people will lose access to prescription drugs that they may desperately need for mental health or chronic illnesses.
Homeless people, exposed to strong winds and floods nonstop for days, suffered greater harm than people with homes. By refusing to help them survive, FEMA is ultimately perpetuating a vicious cycle of inequality in which homeless people are marginalized.
Disaster relief officials must always triage resources because resources are limited. But disaster relief resources seem insufficient, and lives are at stake. The Department of Homeland Security cut its budget request for FEMA from approximately $17 billion in 2017 to $15.5 billion in 2018. Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated that the state needed more than $180 billion for storm recovery. However, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has sent only $5 billion, and FEMA has spent about $1.4 billion. Texas officials have not happed into the state’s “rainy day fund” of around $10 billion.
We can already guess how the story in Houston may unfold. After Hurricane Katrina, many chronically homeless residents of New Orleans were unable to find medical treatment for their illnesses. Some of them may have died after they returned to the city, lost and forgotten. In the future, cities and states should prepare comprehensive plans that consider the safety of homeless people. In Houston, where widespread flooding has become an annual problem, further preparation is necessary. Everyone impacted by a natural disaster deserves help, regardless of their previous circumstances.
John Lin is a research intern at Baylor College of Medicine. He volunteers with post-Harvey rebuilding efforts, serves veterans at the Michael E. Debakey VA Medical Center, and writes on major policy issues.