HAVEN and HELL
First, they lost everything. Then many New Orleanians seeking refuge landed in Houston's deadliest neighborhoods. Now they live in fear and find themselves scapegoats for a crime wave that was rising even before Katrina
Sunday, February 12, 2006
By Trymaine Lee Staff writer
HOUSTON -- The 15-year-old girl told police the men who raped her had New Orleans accents. No mistaking it. She said she recognized it the moment one of them jammed a gun in her face that day in mid-January and barked an order: Get in the van. She told police they drove her to a secluded area in southeast Houston and raped her until the sun came up. Advertisement
Her story seemed to burst like a napalm bomb over a city already seething with months of tension since more than 150,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees arrived.
Radio and television programs were jammed with angry callers lambasting evacuees. Police tore through neighborhoods filled with New Orleanians, questioning innocent Katrina survivors while looking for the men the girl had described -- one with dreadlocks and three teardrop tattoos under his left eye, the other with a single braid stemming from his goatee. Thousands of fliers featured police sketches and a reward.
But a week after her story shocked the city, police said it was all a lie -- a cover for a consensual rendezvous with a man she met on the Internet.
The hoax brought to the forefront a growing culture clash that is playing out in Houston, where crime is on the minds of residents and public officials, some of blaming a spike in killings on the arrival of thousands of displaced New Orleanians.
Law-abiding New Orleans evacuees respond that they are being blamed unfairly in a city that already had a serious murder problem before Katrina substantially swelled its population; when the storm made landfall, Houston's murder rate already was headed towards an 11-year high.
Other evacuees say they also have been victimized by crime in Houston, while acknowledging that some Katrina survivors -- due to either desperation or habit -- have aggravated the problem.
Affordable but dangerous
Nowhere is the emotional issue more evident than in the sprawling apartment complexes in the southwest part of the city, a crime-plagued area to which thousands of Katrina evacuees have moved. With most of them having lost all or most of what they own, they gravitated toward the affordable area because they had little choice; it was one of the few parts of the city with available apartments.
Housing there can be had for as little as $199 per month, but it comes with a risk. Government records show that about 25 percent of the 83,000 New Orleans area evacuees being housed with FEMA vouchers landed in the city's southwest side. That tracks closely the population trend before Katrina, with about a fourth of the city's residents making their homes in the area.
But southwest Houston produced a disproportionate amount of killings even before the storm, accounting for about one-third of Houston's murders. Gang graffiti, scrawled by the Southwest Cholos, MS-13 and La Tercera Crips, is dashed throughout.
Houston police statistics show the city's murder rate has jumped nearly 20 percent since Katrina, and displaced New Orleanians have been both victims and suspects. Between the end of August and the end of January, 19 former New Orleanians had been killed in Houston. Eleven died at the hands of Houston natives, police said, and the other eight by fellow New Orleans evacuees. Meanwhile, seven former New Orleans residents have been charged or named as suspects in killings.
The Houston Police Department, understaffed before Katrina, is grappling with the influx of both law-abiding New Orleans evacuees and some criminals, who have moved into areas where homegrown gangsters fueled a wave of crime long before the first evacuees arrived.
Residents said the new kids on the block have battled local cliques and armed drug gangs, especially the Braeswood Soldiers, a gang said to control the complex where Houston native LaTasha Wilson lives. Wilson said the local gang's drug business has been interrupted by the new competition and the increased police presence evacuees have attracted from the police.
"The block is hot," Wilson said, "It's like can't nobody hustle no more. Like they can't get nothing done with them (evacuees) around."
Wilson weighed in on who might emerge victorious in the bloody battles between local gangs and the boys from the "N.O."
"Them New Orleans people are killers," she said. "We got some killers in H-Town, but they're like some serial killers. I don't ever want to go to their city. I hear they kill like 10, 15 people a night."
Like many of the post-Katrina urban myths swirling across Houston, her number is wildly off the mark. In 2004, perhaps the best comparison because the year was not interrupted by a major hurricane, there were 264 slaying in New Orleans.
Police said overall crime -- murder being an important exception -- has declined since the storm, but calls for service are up in part because of the stress thousands of evacuees have placed on the local culture. Statistics show that upticks in Houston crime categories besides killings are not substantially out of line with the increase in population, which authorities say is to be expected.
Crime figures, however, show the city had been grappling with a murder problem for years, and the rate had shot up substantially in the months preceding Katrina.
The city's annual number of murders and non-negligent manslaughters had been inching up since a low of 230 five years ago, reaching 275 killings in 2004.
But the violence accelerated in the early part of 2005. In the eight months before Katrina hit Aug. 29, Houston police recorded 225 killings -- a pace that, even without the storm's evacuees, would have produced 337 killings for the year, the most since 1994.
But many in Houston have blamed the problem mostly on the Katrina evacuees.
Houston police reports include the normal descriptions of height, weight and the race of suspects, but now there's a new box to check: accent.
Robbery victims often have reported to police that the person who robbed them had a New Orleans accent or spoke with peculiar slang. They've also pointed out cultural characteristics that differ from the natives. For instance, many African-American men from New Orleans tend to wear their hair in dreadlocks as opposed to the cornrows worn by many Houstonians, residents said.
Those visual cues took a dangerous turn Jan. 19, when the 15-year-old girl falsely reported to police that she'd been dragged from a city street corner and raped by two men with New Orleans accents.
Displaced New Orleanians do not deny that some evacuees have committed crimes, but they say the girl's fictitious tale is an example of the bias they're facing in Houston.
"People have been acting like we are the enemy," said Dorothy Stukes, a Katrina survivor who is chairwoman of the Houston branch of the Katrina Survivor Association of the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now, or ACORN.
"The reputation people have spread that we are a bunch of criminals is a lie," she said. "Many of us are working, paying people who loved our city and worked hard there."
Stuck in high-crime areas
Before it was known that the girl's story was a hoax, displaced New Orleans activist and educator Mtangulizi Sanyika joined members of a grass-roots coalition -- including the Nation of Islam, the New Black Panther Party, the National Black Liberation Front and others -- in prayer before a news conference on the site where the girl said she'd been snatched. He said the honeymoon between the city and New Orleans evacuees clearly is over.
"When we first came to Houston we felt loved. Anything was better than being in New Orleans at the time. But once we had a moment to regroup, we found ourselves spread over some of the city's high-crime areas," Sanyika said.
Jerome Jacks, 24, said people are overlooking how many good New Orleanians have had to deal with living among Houston's criminal element. Jacks, who found a job as a security guard at a north Houston shopping mall, is married and has a 10-year-old daughter. He said the media is not helping to cool the misinformation being disseminated throughout Houston and the world.
"The whole crime thing to me seems like they are trying to pump up the hype," Jacks said. He believes "there have been more crimes committed on the people of New Orleans than by the people of New Orleans."
Jacks said a neighbor's front door was spray painted with "Go home niggers," and other evacuees said they've been called "FEMA rats." Stukes said she's seen graffiti in the city urging survivors to "go home and drown in some Katrina water."
Seeking a truce
While innocent New Orleanians say they've suffered from generalizations about their effect on Houston's crime problem, local law enforcement officers said they have been shocked by the brazen attitudes of some of the new arrivals.
On a recent patrol, veteran Houston police officer Robert King cruised down the 8900 block of Bissonnet Street in the city's southwest about 2 a.m. He pulled to the curb outside Apartment 334, where Alvin Simms, 20, originally of New Orleans, allegedly gunned down two other evacuees Dec. 31.
"There was so much blood," he said, rolling down his window for a better look at the shadowy enclave. Authorities say Simms shot Keith Hayes, 19, and Calvin Clay, 23, before hopping from a second-floor balcony and fleeing the area. Simms was captured Jan. 27 in California, where he had absconded with his girlfriend and baby.
King, a 29-year veteran, patrols the department's Fondren division, which works rugged sections of the southwest that boast some of the area's highest crime rates. Still, he said he has been surprised by many evacuees.
"Their attitude is not something we're used to encountering," King said. "Most of them are -- I'm trying to think of a good word -- wise-asses. Yep, wise-asses."
There are also cultural differences. Officer Zsache McNeil said one of the strangest things he has encountered since New Orleanians landed in southwest Houston occurred one night toward the end of his shift. He was called out to a disturbance at a high-crime apartment complex and found 20 to 30 evacuees in a parking lot, spilling from a couple of front porches and from parked cars.
They weren't armed, he said, and the group remained calm. But he called for backup nonetheless.
"You're not going to believe this. It was about 2 a.m., and they were out there cooking gumbo. Gumbo," he said, chuckling. "Having a gumbo party at 2 a.m. while people are trying to sleep."
A call for help
City officials are looking for ways to gain control of crime-plagued neighborhoods. Mayor Bill White announced a plan Dec. 26 to launch a multimillion-dollar initiative with the Police Department to quell crime in targeted areas, including southwest Houston. The program will use police officers working overtime on increased foot and bicycle patrols and improve intelligence gathering in areas most affected by the recent rise in crime.
White did not blame the crime increase on evacuees, but on a substantial jump in Houston's population. He said, however, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should finance the $6.5 million task force because the crime issue has been exacerbated by the vast influx of evacuees. The program is proposed to run for six months, but whether FEMA will help pay for it is undetermined.
Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs said data suggesting that evacuees alone are fueling violence in Houston are hard to come by, but she said it's time to take a hard look at the city's new reality and take the necessary steps to correct problems.
"I believe Houstonians are fed up with the increase in crime that we have seen since the Katrina evacuees arrived," Sekula-Gibbs said. "If the crime element is here, we want them out."
Sekula-Gibbs said the aftermath of the New Orleanians' arrival marked a negative turn from the direction the city was going.
"I think, overall, the city was moving in the right direction with some exceptions," Sekula-Gibbs said. "The city was feeling very stable."
But numbers suggest otherwise. The police tried to get a handle on the city's growing murder rate before Katrina, and the department has had trouble keeping adequate staffing in recent years.
Houston police said the force has about 4,750 officers compared to the more than 5,000 it needs to optimize services. The department has also run low on recruits, with the number of recruiting classes it's had the past couple years sliced in half.
Police Chief Harold Hurtt said through a spokeswoman that he hopes to hold at least five classes a year. Recruiting has also been tough, with only about 30 of the 300 applicants that apply making it through the academy. And the department has lost about 240 officers a year to retirement, a trend expected to continue until about 2009. Another 200 police officers were lost recently when the city fired city jailers and replaced them with cops.
Many officers in the dangerous Fondren Division work without partners because there simply isn't enough manpower.
Hurtt said Houston had about 2.3 officers per 1,000 residents before Katrina, less than the national average of 2.8 officers per 1,000 residents. Once evacuees are factored into the equation, police said, they're down to about 1.9 per 1,000 residents. The department hopes to use overtime to help offset the low ratio.
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Trymaine Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3322.