The city of Houston, Texas, has been praised for its open-armed response to people from neighboring Louisiana who fled Hurricane Katrina last August. Around 150,000 people, mostly from New Orleans, have taken up residence in Houston and many plan to stay. But, a new poll shows that many Houstonians are not happy with this addition to the city's population.
Since evacuees from Louisiana started pouring into Houston seven months ago, many Houstonians believe, crime has gone up and the city has become more dangerous. In a poll conducted by Rice University investigators in the Houston area in late February and released just last week, 66 percent of respondents said Louisiana evacuees had caused a major increase in violent crime.
In the same poll, 76 percent of those surveyed said helping the evacuees has put great strain on Houston. In the survey, 47 percent said the overall impact of the evacuees had been bad and 49 percent said the city would be worse off if they decided to stay here.
Darlene Patterson who fled New Orleans with her five children after Katrina struck, says children in school often pick on classmates who are from New Orleans. She says she realizes some criminals and gang members from New Orleans did come to Houston with the displaced, but that they do not represent the average evacuee.
"They got some bad apples out there, but we got some good apples, too, who are really trying to change, who are really trying to make things better for their children and their families," said Darlene Patterson. "What is wrong with sending children to school? You mean to tell me they are not safe at school?"
She says her Middle School daughter has been attacked by older boys she calls "Texas kids." She says the police have been ineffective in stopping such incidents.
Darlene Patterson says she saw the Rice University survey results when they were published in the Houston Chronicle last Friday and she says she is distressed to see so many people here blaming evacuees from New Orleans for local problems.
"They had their own crime wave before we got here," she said. "They had a lot of things going on before we got here, murders, rapes, all those things. Yes, New Orleans did add some problems to them and I applaud them for taking the measures they took, but at the same time it is making the ones who do want to stay here in Texas look bad."
Houston police spokesman Alvin Wright sympathizes with Darlene Patterson and other evacuees from New Orleans who are trying to get on with their lives here. He says police statistics, in fact, show no marked increase in crime as a result of the hurricane evacuees coming here.
"The folks who came here, population wise, are equal to the population of a small city," said Alvin Wright. "When you look at the crime related to those individuals coming here, the crime level is about the same. But we have not looked at the fact that most of the individuals who are committing those crimes were committing them against people from New Orleans in New Orleans and now they are here in Houston committing the exact same crimes against them in Houston."
Wright says the Houston police force is under strain because there has not been an increase in its budget or personnel to match the challenge of an added 150,000 people.
"In order for that to be dealt with on an appropriate level, we are going to have to have more police officers to provide more police protection for more people," he said.
Houston city officials have complained that federal funds provided to the city following Hurricane Katrina have been inadequate to meet crime prevention and housing demands. Texas Governor Rick Perry has also complained about the lack of full federal funding for evacuee care in the state as a whole.
City officials and the researchers who conducted the recent poll see signs that resentment against evacuees may be a temporary phenomenon. Eventually, they say, the "bad apples" will be removed and the law-abiding people who were forced to leave their homes in Louisiana will blend into the Houston community as citizens, consumers and taxpayers.